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GABRIELLE(director/writer: Patrice Chéreau; screenwriters: Anne-Louise Trividic/based on the short story “The Return” by Joseph Conrad; cinematographer: Éric Gautier; editor: François Gedigier; music: Fabio Vacchi; cast: Isabelle Huppert (Gabrielle Hervey), Pascal Greggory (Jean Hervey), Claudia Coli (Yvonne), Thierry Hancisse (the Editor in Chief), Chantal Neuwirth (Madeleine); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Joseph Strub/Serge Catoire/Ferdinanda Frangipane; IFC First Take; 2005-France/Italy/Germany-in French with English subtitles)
“Both protagonists give elegant and moving performances.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Patrice Chéreau (“Intimacy”/”His Brother”/”Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train”) finely directs this period chamber drama faithfully drawn from Joseph Conrad’s published in 1923 (though written in 1897) observant short story “The Return.” It’s written by Chéreau and his regular screenwriter Anne-Louise Trividic. It tells in a fussy formal style that muffles the emotions, the disintegration of a perfect bourgeois marriage in the 1912 Parisian high society.

The smug wealthy aristocratic publisher, Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory), is hosting the regular weekly dinner party gathering of his privileged class friends in his luxurious townhouse, coldly extolling the virtues of his pretty, intelligent, personable and well-mannered wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), who even comes from a more prominent family than his own, as someone he’s so sure of that he could read her thoughts.

Jean’s philanthropic purchase of a recent newspaper brings to his high society gatherings some of the arty crowd. One day he comes home to a Dear John letter left by Gabrielle after 10 years of marriage stating that she’s leaving him for an unnamed lover because he offers the kind of passion that is not possible with Jean. He’s humiliated, feels betrayed and worries about a public scandal. Some four hours later Gabrielle surprisingly returns and gives little clue as to what happened, but is willing to carry on this loveless sham of a sexless marriage to save face. The maid Yvonne (Claudia Coli) listens to her mistress as she helps her undress, and she represents the common people’s point of view of what to make of these rich people expressing so much mental pain.

In the interest of appearances, another dinner party soon takes place. The challenge is now to see if the skewered couple, with the once self-satisfied cold-hearted man coming apart even though he never really loved his wife and she becoming emboldened in her silent glares and knowing that she at least once loved someone and who can now say with hurtful conviction “The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable,” can resume in a formal way their same public stance as before the letter.

Both protagonists give elegant and moving performances, allowing their inner feelings to be released as they struggle to find the meaning of happiness in their gilded cage of a world. It’s a story that strikes a chord against apathy, rigidity and repressed desires. The film’s shifts in mood are highlighted by alternating between black-and-white and color photography.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”