“What does it mean to know someone?”
Gabrielle, a film from director Patrice Chereau is a showcase for the talents of the marvelous actress Isabelle Huppert. Set in the early 20th century, the film begins very strongly with Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) leaving the train station and smugly musing on the merits of his most excellent wife of ten years, “well bred and intelligent” Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). Jean is a very wealthy man who has recently acquired a newspaper. This has led to the Herveys’ including a number of artistic types in the frequent soirees held at their lavish Paris mansion.
Jean’s musings on the merits of his wife, Gabrielle, turn into shock when he discovers a note from her explaining that she’s left him. But his shock turns to anger and recriminations when Gabrielle unexpectedly returns after discovering that she cannot, after all, leave her husband.
The majority of the film covers the ensuing hours between Gabrielle’s return and a dinner party held in their home. While the film at first presents Jean as an admiring, happy husband, subsequent bitter recriminations reveal that the Herveys’ marriage is not what is seems. With a cold, passionless relationship based on appearances, just how will this unhappy couple ‘appear’ cordial to one another in light of Gabrielle’s adultery? Gabrielle, was, before her adulterous affair, just another one of Jean’s possessions, and he admits that he loves “her as a collector loves his most prized possession.” Jean’s emotional detachment degenerates into passionate hatred while Gabrielle reveals defenses even rage cannot surmount.
This is a beautifully realized film based on the story, The Return from Joseph Conrad. The Herveys’ mansion resembles a museum rather than a home–footsteps echo in cold marble floors, and one could so easily become lost in the empty rooms. Even the dinner parties, which at least bring hordes of humans into the Herveys’ home, seem stilted and false. At times the elegant crowd constructs a tableaux rather than a room of living breathing people engaged in social intercourse. Perhaps this is accentuated in part by the dirge-like music played rather heavily by a morose guest.
At times, particularly in the early stages of the film, I anticipated a Rohmer-type quality dialogue. Unfortunately, the film never reached these intellectual heights. Wonderfully acted, the film strikes some discordant notes at several points–I found Gabrielle’s dialogue with the servant implausible, for example, and the ending unsatisfying. In French with subtitles.