If the author himself says he hated a short story, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart promises not to try to adapt it for the screen.
"You loved me, didn't you? I mean, a little. Tell me."
That's not the best question to ask your wife, but the answer doesn't matter much by the time Jean Hervey finally asks it in Gabrielle, a French movie that pokes at the dying embers of a seemingly perfect marriage. At least it seemed perfect to Jean, though his wife Gabrielle had long held another opinion.
Gabrielle is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short story "The Return" from 1898's Tales of Unrest. The story asks what happens when a man's wife leaves him—then comes back. Wikipedia quotes Conrad as saying "I hate it" about his own work in this case. If you take a look at the story online, you'll realize that Director Patrice Chéreau was taking on a tough project when he decided to adapt the classic work. Although the small scope of the work makes it hard to pinpoint, he sets the movie roughly in the story's original era.
"I was incredibly disturbed by it, disturbed by the quality of the depiction of this man's downfall," Chéreau says in the interview accompanying the movie on this DVD. He also calls the work "an extraordinary dialogue between deaf people."
An official selection at film festivals in New York, Toronto, and Venice, 2005's Gabrielle finally walks away from the big screen, only to return as a DVD.
Facts of the Case
Gabrielle opens on a typical Thursday evening in the life of newspaper publisher Jean (Pascal Greggory), a dapper moustached man with bowler hat and cigar, as he disembarks the commuter train and walks home to the usual dinner party hosted by himself and his beautiful wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert, The Swindle). As he walks, his narration voiceover tells us a little bit about his marriage and exciting, cultured life. "Our Thursdays have become famous," he boasts to the audience.
The camera focuses, briefly, on the pompous editor-in-chief as he rants about modern plays ("A cuckold husband kills his wife, a woman poisons her lover …") amid the whirl of party chatter.
"I trust Gabrielle entirely. She is candid and faithful. I know her thoughts—even her most secret ones—and her dreams," Jean assures himself in the narration as the guests drone on.
It's the next day that becomes atypical for Jean, starting with a note he finds on a chest of drawers. "Why write when she knows I'll be home for dinner?" he asks himself. The answer, of course, is that Gabrielle is planning to leave Jean for another man. He's still pondering the note, though, when Gabrielle returns, having decided not to go through with the affair. She calls her intended dalliance "a mistake."
Jean wants to discuss the "mistake" further. Tonight, he's concerned with propriety: "If at least you had died! I would have been offered condolences and known how to reply…This is very humiliating." He's also jealous and angry, wanting to punish Gabrielle psychologically for her unfaithful desires. As Jean comes to realize that it's been a long time since Gabrielle actually loved him, though, his actions become more irrational, perhaps even dangerous.
The strong point of Gabrielle is Pascal Greggory's performance as a man falling apart from the realization that his marriage has done the same long ago. Jean loves his wife, but admires her beauty in much the same way he admires the sculptures in his elegant home. As he goes through shifting reactions to Gabrielle's unfaithfulness and the battles that ensue, Greggory (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) shows us that there's more to their relationship than that, but Jean's inability to communicate has damaged it beyond repair. His performance also matches the increasingly disheveled look of Jean as tensions intensify in his home. He makes it clear that Jean's the one responsible for Gabrielle's desire to stray, but still leaves a hint of sympathy for the character.
As Gabrielle, Isabelle Huppert has a sculpted, graceful beauty that illustrates Jean's shallow view of his marriage. Her character is seen mainly through Jean's eyes, but Huppert holds her own against Greggory's strong performance enough to make Gabrielle essentially a two-person show. The other characters, even Gabrielle's would-be lover, are only minor figures in the marital battle of wills.
Since it's a dialogue between two actors, Gabrielle seems like a filmed stage play. Director Patrice Chéreau (Son frère) tries to make the movie into more than that. He switches between black-and-white and color for emphasis, most notably in the scene in which the veiled Gabrielle returns home after her intended tryst, while Jean fumes upstairs. The lighting is dark and moody to match the growing moodiness within Jean. He builds dramatic tension with music and a deliberately slow buildup as Jean dons glasses and grabs a decanter before reading the fateful letter. Chéreau also portrays the dinner party, at one point, as a tableau, with Jean's guests appearing as much like blocks of marble as his wife. Occasionally, he interrupts the action with silent movie-style titles setting the time or posting a key phrase on screen. I found these touches more of a distraction than a plus. At least fans of Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert will get to see both actors give fine performances.
The 35-minute interview feature with Chéreau, Greggory, and Huppert (with English subtitles) does an excellent job of explaining the choices the director and actors made in adapting Conrad's work to the screen. With the exception of one scene that the director says viewers found confusing, the deletions were wise choices; Chéreau does well in explaining his logic with each deleted scene.
The movie's unrated, but two sexual scenes near the end make it the equivalent of an R-rated picture.
"The Return" was an unlikely candidate for screen adaptation. Seeing the movie, I thought this script would have played much better on stage. Director Patrice Chéreau is faithful to Conrad's original work. Yet his movie is often slow, and the message within is hardly revolutionary or shocking now that divorce has become commonplace.
The performances at the core of the movie are strong. But Gabrielle is guilty of adding too many flourishes when simplicity would have put attention firmly where it belongs: on Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert as the couple in crisis.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Interview with Patrice Chéreau, Isabelle Huppert, and Pascal Greggory
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