Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle, with—as Beverly Berning has noted in her program capsule—its ready comparison to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage, was just opening in Paris when I was there last September, trailers were screening in the cineplexes and posters were ubiquitous in the metro, so out of a sense of nostalgia I felt compelled to catch the screening at Pacific Film Archives. Press had been teased that Isabelle Huppert might actually attend so I also went on the slim chance that tease would manifest. Alas, no Isabelle. Nor, if I understand correctly, will she be showing up for the Pacific Film Archive's Huppert June retrospective. A pity. I would have loved to have seen her in her incandescent pale flesh.
Winning a special jury acting award at the 2005 Venice International Film Festival, even though the film itself was assailed with boos after its screening, Huppert maneuvers Chéreau's cumbersome chamber drama with customary aplomb. Shifting from a restricted interiority to a scandalously candid resignation, she is a complete pleasure to observe even as she withholds motivations. The skin beneath her left eye flinches in nervous recognition of distasteful insights. Her nostrils flare as if the atmosphere of her strictured life smells foul.
As Moira Sullivan reported to the Greencine Daily from the Venice International, "Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle, based on Joseph Conrad's The Return, proves to be an overambitious project that literally doesn't work on screen." One of the film's primary problems is "the decision to project letters and plot developments onscreen as text. The effect is poor, even embarrassing for its lack of ingenuity." I must agree, as does Daniel Kasman, reporting last September from the 43rd New York Film Festival who felt Gabrielle was "inconsistently energized by title cards yelling dialog [her husband] Jean fails to say."
Kasman, however, does commend one of the film's best scenes, and perhaps the gist of Joseph Conrad's concept of "the return": "[P]erhaps the most incisive and invigorating remark in this dully antiquated drama is a rare moment of self-inquiry from Gabrielle . . . who tells her husband that loving the man she was going to run off with was 'too demanding' and that if she truly loved Jean she could not have been able to return; she is only able to come back, face him, and live life as normal because their lack of love makes such interactions easier. These are stunning spoken admissions, and ones far more candid and insightful than any of Jean's bumbling attempts to explain or repair the clarity of his marriage's loveless basis."
Though writing about Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, Juan Manuel Freire notes: "The initially intrusive use of silent movie subtitles becomes another successful stylistic flourish, emphasizing the artifice of intercourses in a society that hides every passion and truth beneath luxurious costumes and furniture." In regretful hindsight, I wish I could have seen Three Times to compare these stylistic intertitular flourishes with Gabrielle. A pity they were not more successful in the latter.
What worked for me the best, however, along with Huppert in the title role, was the film's disturbing score by Fabio Vacchi. Reminiscent of Hermann's work for Hitchcock, the score leant an anguished and jolting anxiety to the film's depiction of social complacency.