Monday, November 13, 2006

GABRIELLE - brutal and brilliant chamber drama

GABRIELLE is a merciless depiction of a strained marriage, based on a novella by Joseph Conrad and brought to the screen by outstanding French director, Patrice Chéreau (LA REINE MARGOT). Brilliantly designed, photographed and acted - it is an intense and memorable costume drama complemented by a fascinating score. However, it will not be to everyone's taste. I loved it, but it left Nik cold.

The story itself is nothing new. it features a rich middle-class man whose social class and upbringing have taught him to value impassivity, propriety and respectability above all else. He is not a bad man so much as a limited man, and he chooses his wife by limited criteria. Will she prove an elegant hostess - faithful, stable, predictable - an ornament to his carefully appointed his? In these stories, the wife always marries the husband aware in some sense of the bargain she is making - a passionless life in exchange for comfort and dependability. But then comes the regret and the moment of rebellion. This is the story that forms the backbone of novels from Anna Karenina to The Forsyte Saga. In general, I have a great appreciation for this genre - Anna Karenina is my favourite novel after all. However, if you know that you don't have a taste for this sort of domestic drama, then you should probably avoid GABRIELLE, despite the fact that it is a superior example of the genre.

In GABRIELLE, the familiar story is situated in pre-WW1 Paris and is filmed like a Three Act drama within the confines of a sumptuous house. The husband is a rich financier who lives in this beautiful but claustrophobic house filled with classical busts under glass domes. We meet him as he walks from the train to his house. He has the fine clothes, confident swagger and cigar that denotes the self-satisfied man of property. But it is credit to
Pascal Greggory's nuanced performance that he does not appear odious - rather, in some way, pathetic. The husband buys a small newspaper and so his salon becomes wider in scope - he is suddenly entertaining radical journalists and less "safe" characters. With dizzying camera-work we see a typical Thursday At Home. The conversation is vapid, the people unbearable and yet the evening is a success! It seems insupportable. And so it is. For the husband returns home the next day to find a note from his wife, played by Isabelle Huppert telling him that she has left him. However, she returns some hours later.

The "second act" of the movie follows the husband and wife in their private space. He has to re-examine everything that he took for granted and come to a slow realisation about his feelings for his wife. She has to summon up the ability to tell him why she left him. These scenes - especially one over the dinner table - are absolutely excruciating to watch because the acting is so powerful and the characters so deliberately malicious and yet genuinely hurt. The "third act" sees the same couple navigate another public Thursday At Home and the consequences of moving beyond the boundaries of impassivity.

GABRIELLE is, for me, a misnomer. The movie is as much about the husband's emotional journey as the wife's and, perhaps surprisingly given some of his actions, I found him to be a more sympathetic character. The story may be familiar but the movie feels new because of its intensity and because of the daring camera-work. While structured in some ways like a theatre piece it is undoubtedly "cinematic" in its use of the camera, editing from black and white to colour, use of subtitles. The orchestral score in particular is very fine - and is used in an obvious and deliberate manner rather than as a subconscious manipulative device to underline the emotions we are meant to be feeling.

So, it should be clear that I think that GABRIELLE is a very fine movie. However, more than usually, the "genre warning" applies. But if you do like psychological domestic drama, then this is a superb example of the genre.

GABRIELLE played Venice and Toronto 2005 and opened in continental Europe and the US earlier this year. It opens in the UK on Friday and is available on Region 1 DVD on December 19th.

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