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Dusted Off
By Jeff Reichert

Dir. Patrice Chéreau, France, No distribution

Dissecting the vicissitudes of fin de siècle bourgeoisie on film often results in works that resemble dusty china cabinets, with emphasis and focus placed squarely on silverware, candles, dresses, and complicated codes of etiquette. Period filmmaking is box-office kibble for the gray-haired set, audiences old enough to romanticize a time in which their parents and grandparents inhabited, one during which, with the benefit of hindsight, the calendar change from one century into another seems to actually resemble a marked divide between two distinct eras. For all the intellectual capital spent in academia tracing the birth of the modern and its offshoots in avant-garde art of the time, cinema seems largely content with looking back and turning out intricately woven visual tea cozies; even if they may be updated somewhat with Foulcauldian notions of festering rots and illicit desires at the core of constricting social codes and corsets. Recent films like Raul Ruíz’s Time Regained, Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn, and Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées aimed themselves at more daring audiences by injecting welcome energy into a moribund arena of filmmaking, and were rewarded for their efforts with respectable if limited returns (too hip or not hip enough?). And now, Patrice Chéreau, who has been gradually becoming one of the more interesting French filmmakers working today since the international success of 1994’s Queen Margot, returns to the New York Film Festival with Gabrielle, which is, to these eyes, a more than worthy attempt to take the turn of the century on its and our aesthetic terms.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s long story “The Return,” Gabrielle details the emotional and intellectual fallout when a society wife, the titular Gabrielle Hervey (Isabelle Huppert), leaves her husband of 10 years for another man via letter in the afternoon, only to return home later that evening. The husband, Jean (Pascal Greggory), ranks among that breed of emotionally deadened, supremely confident, and narcissistic males who so often inhabit these fictions. His choice to marry, as related through voiceover that draws heavily from the source text, though seemingly spontaneous is the result of an eminently reasonable thought process—on a beautiful day, the kind in which “animated flowers smile at bewitched knights” he decided that “happiness was the lot of all mankind” and alighted upon the first flower to catch his fancy: Gabrielle. He admits a lack of intimacy between them (“no need” he offers), and that to his collector’s eye (their home, with a hallway full of glass cases and walls bedecked with paintings appropriately resembles an art gallery) she had become his “most prized item.” Her letter cracks his faith in an airtight world view (literalized as he shatters a glass decanter, and the film’s black-and-white cinematography bleeds into color), and the rest of Gabrielle follows his contortions as he tries to “compose the appropriate face” to wear in light of his most cherished object’s infidelity.

Perhaps this sounds similar to the aforementioned, derided cinema of crockery, where starched collars and crystalline earrings substitute for real characters, and Gabrielle traffics in some of that hermetic sensibility, but to different ends. Chéreau allows little immediate sense of a world outside the bounds of the Hervey mausoleum and the emotional crisis taking place—even the few exterior shots scrutinize little more than Greggory’s ruggedly anonymous countenance, as his voiceover briefly sketches the narrative of his life—but this is all so that he can clearly delimit the boundaries of his fairly radical formal project. Abrupt shifts from color to black-and-white, superimpositions of swatches of text, jarring slow-motion, discomfiting modernist musical selections that alternately underscore and undermine the drama, an edgy camera that can’t seem to decide where to rest—Chéreau sets all of these mechanisms to work in this microscopic examination of the wreckage of two lives, and perhaps, if you’re willing to do the work, of an entire class. It’s not unlike the treatment I’d imagine someone like Arnaud Desplechin might give this material, and the closest corollary I can find for Gabrielle is his Esther Kahn, except that Desplechin’s universes (aside from their cockeyed optimism and sense of the possible) feel pieced together from shards of jagged glass into some sort of Chagall-esque harmony. Chéreau seems more intent on starting a crack in an unvarnished pane and watching its tendrils spread slowly to its outermost edges.

Of course, to make all this work, the two lives at the center of the eruption need compelling performers to fill them out. Who better then, than Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory to lend heft to dialogue like: “The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable” or “I want to flow into him like blood” or “I can trace your life in each blue vein,” all of which read on paper like the outline for some Catherine Breillat outrageousness, but drop onscreen like heavy artillery? Greggory’s career is less illustrious than his counterpart (it took me until 2003’s Raja to really notice him) but Gabrielle is constructed, like the Conrad story, around Jean’s struggles to comprehend his wife’s betrayal and compose a reaction, and Pascal’s more than up to the task. His huge, sad eyes rest above lips that draw easily back into a contemptuous sneer and both are topped by a graying, foppish mop that spends half the movie in need of smoothing—it’s a visage meant for coming undone which it does in splendid fashion; his anguish as he lies on the stairs after attempting to rape his wife is stunning in its complexity. Huppert, for her part, plays the tragically ossified socialite we’ve encountered her as before to the hilt; it’s a performance more notable for small satisfactions than wholesale surprises, but she remains stunning nonetheless. As she grows more hysterical in her embarrassment, Jean wonders “Wasn’t the silent sufferer lovelier, more awe-inspiring?” Do Gabrielle and Jean ever really elevate to the level of characters deserving of our empathy? Not necessarily, but that’s not Chéreau’s aim. Unlike his last film, Son frère, (which was, shockingly, produced for television), an underseen modern masterpiece in which his camera and editing were tightly synched to its quiet human tragedy, Gabrielle’s form-first approach pits his performers against his direction as they simultaneously spar with each other.

To even out the playing field, Chéreau works to buttress the Gabrielle character, expanding her role beyond Conrad’s original creation. In “The Return,” the wife remains unnamed, and the story is clearly framed through Jean’s (Alvan in the story) perspective. Referred to as “the girl,” “that woman,” and “his wife,” she’s barely more than a vision until about midway through, and even then remains little more than a figure for her husband’s bewilderment to bounce off. Gabrielle adds in an ambiguous interaction between maid Yvonne (Claudia Coli) and her mistress which, in its movement from talk of past happiness to classist venom and back complicates the pathos that surrounds Gabrielle; she’s in many ways the more sympathetic character, even if unfaithful she admits to having found a way to love her husband (though she notes minutes later that of the two times she’d been happy in life, the second came while composing her letter), but no less immune from the sort of casual cruelty we’ve come to associate with her ilk. Again, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s through his formal tactics that Chéreau makes his most radical maneuver. The shifts from color to black-and-white seem almost arbitrary on first viewing, but given the extra emphasis placed on the wife character by Chéreau’s script, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps he’s turned the tables on Conrad. That, instead of rendering Gabrielle the object, there’s a concerted effort to shift perspective in her favor. Jean’s reveries in the first half hour remain largely colorless and cold, whereas color most often figures in their scenes together, and eventually takes over the film as their tête-à-tête intensifies. Jean’s voiceover, obviously, employs the first person, but is it too much a stretch, given the additional narrative threads Chéreau offers Gabrielle, to imagine that somehow this is her reverie of his self-perceptions that is alternately fortified and splintered by his reactions to her letter? It seems no accident then, that in her newly imagined conversation with Yvonne, Gabrielle crosses class boundaries and suggests the goal of all womanhood has been relegated to, “return[ing] their gaze….the men who look upon us.” Fitting that the one moment of unity in Gabrielle might hold yet another clue to the intents behind starkest its starkest division.

These shifts from color to B&W represent perhaps the most interesting and perplexing tactic among the host Chéreau employs, and I’m not sure if my preferred interpretation necessary holds more weight than another (and I can’t decide if I would prefer the shifts in film stock to be arbitrary or not). In many ways the film is an experiment, and I’d call it an unqualified success, if not for a few minor quibbles. Questions of desire and sex circulate throughout “The Return,” but much is left unspoken and alluded to, as per the mores of Conrad’s day. Chéreau leaves nothing of Gabrielle to the imagination—by the end of the film, Huppert is left literally naked in bed, having just offered her body to her husband. Boiling its conflict down so blatantly to sex is a crude gesture, not ineffective in and amongst all the jarring camera movements, edits, and music, but just because our strictures on sexuality in art are looser than those of Conrad’s time doesn’t mean we need always take advantage of that. This move dovetails with my other complaint: that there’s nothing so comparatively beautiful in Gabrielle as this bit of Conrad’s prose from “The Return”:


“He stood with uplifted hand... The years would pass—and he would have to live with that unfathomable candour where flit shadows of suspicions and hate... The years would pass—and he would never know--never trust... The years would pass without faith and love...”


Again, achieving beauty seems far from Chéreau’s intent, but a few more flourishes of warmth might have made the unrelenting callousness more palatable. Though, he does strike a well-deserved note of pathos by the end, as a hectic piece of text (“You must help me. You always have”) presages Jean’s manic flight from his home in the face of a wife willing to sacrifice love in the face of comfort and indifference (“When you don’t matter, you can come and go.”), it’s practically romantic. Gabrielle is certainly more than a worthy entry into that field of obsessive domestic fictions of which perhaps the quintessential example is Proust’s The Captive, but it does feel a hair transitional, almost as if Chéreau’s testing new waters before leaping off into further, even more radical explorations. That said, it’s a brisk 90 minutes and flush with ideas; who am I to complain in the face of a period film made for adventurous audiences that still retains enough of the genre trappings to keep the elder set awake…and perhaps only mildly alienated?

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