Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) has come to accept that love will be absent from her life and. has learned to make peace with it.
A Married Woman
Passionless relations in Gabrielle
BY STEVE ERICKSON
French critic and director Luc Moullet once said that morality is a matter of tracking shots, an idea soon lifted by Jean-Luc Godard. If one accepts that film style implies an ethical perspective on the worldor lack thereofis sexuality, too, a matter of tracking shots? Do camera movements have a gender? These questions are implicit in Patrice Chéreaus Gabrielle.
The director begins in a very aggressive style. Cinematographer Eric Gauthiers camera swoops and swoons in glorious Cinemascope, lord of all that it surveys. It seems to represent the perspective of Jean (Pascal Greggory), the films wealthy and arrogant protagonist. The film stock switches back and forth between black and white and color, seemingly at random. If the changes embody anyones point of view, its Jeans; as he gazes upon his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) from a distance, hes in color, but shes in black and white. Jean has mastery of language, speaking a great deal but also delivering a voice-over and interjecting his thoughts in intertitles. Theres a great deal of emotional turbulence implicit in the films form, but for the first reel, it works on the level of implication and subtext. When Jean and Gabrielles marriage collapses, it switches to a far more sedate style. A long sequence where Gabrielle talks alone to her servant is shot and edited without the elaborate camera movementsor narration and intertitlesof the scenes where Jean held sway.
Adapted from Joseph Conrads short story The Return, the plot of Gabrielle is extremely simple. It takes place over 36 hours, begining with Jeans walk home from the train. While doing so, he delivers a voice-over about his success and feelings of security. His social life is based around elaborate dinner parties, made possible by a stable of servants. His complacency crumbles when he reads a letter from Gabrielle. She tells him that she has left him for another man. However, her departure doesnt last long. As Conrads title suggests, she comes back to Jean, but the couple must reinvent their relationship in order for it to have any chance of succeeding. Given that they can barely stand each others company, thats a tall order.
Chéreau has long been interested in the way relationships can sustain themselves without love. His 2001 film Intimacy, also co-written by him and Anne-Louise Tridivic, investigated one based solely on anonymous sex, examining the way it grew beyond that limited basis. Gabrielle explores a marriage without even the promise of physical pleasure. The most positive thing either Jean or Gabrielle ever says about their marriage is I dont regret living with you. Politicians who claim that marriage has existed for thousands of years as an unchanging institution never seem to mention that the notion that it should be based around love is a relatively recent one.
Gabrielle is set at the point where this idea began to take root but makes it clear that it was an ideal not always lived up to. Isabelle Huppert brings the baggage of a series of roles as repressed women who explode in destructive ways, as in Claude Chabrols La Ceremonie and Michael Hanekes The Piano Teacher. While Gabrielle recalls other Huppert characters, she also differs greatly from them. Conrads short story privileged Jean, rendering Gabrielle an enigma with only a handful of lines. Chéreaus film restores a gender balance to the narrative. Gabrielles largely satisfied with a life of low expectations and few rewards or risks. Shes come to accept that love will be absent from her life and has learned to make peace with it. As for sex, Jean and Gabrielles halfhearted fumbling would be comic in a less grim context. One gets the sense that when they talk to each other, both are really talking to themselves.
It would be easy to put a facile feminist interpretation on Gabrielle, seeing the title character as a victim of her times. To some extent, she is, but Huppert never asks the audiences sympathy or plays her as an object deserving pity. Few of us would want to live her life, but shes passive enough to accept that marriage can go on for years without any real emotional commitment. She doesnt exactly liberate herself or get revenge on a bad husband through adultery; the man she chooses to have an affair with is no improvement on Jean. He is the partner who winds up really hurt by their marriages passionless nature.
In the wrong hands, literary period pieces can be the most stultifying form of cinema; for much of the 90s, they seemed to dominate American art houses. Despite its source and setting, Gabrielle has more in common with Ingmar Bergman than Merchant-Ivory. Paradoxically but excitingly, it brings a rare degree of immediacy to a story that reminds us that the past is a foreign country.