Nothing gives art house cinema a bad name surer than movies that stagger under the weight of their own pretentiousness. Gabrielle, a French motion picture directed by the critically acclaimed Patrice Chéreau, is one such example, a gloomy and tedious exercise in drawing-room cruelty.
Based on a Joseph Conrad short story titled "The Return," Gabrielle is not without its enthusiastic champions. Chéreau, after all, has been a darling of international cinema since his 1994 historical epic, Queen Margot, and Gabrielle has the added attraction of two powerful actors in Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory. Still, an impressive pedigree does not guarantee an impressive film.
The setting is the Paris of 1912, and we are introduced to wealthy Jean Hervey (Greggory) as he leaves work early one afternoon and heads home. An insufferably arrogant bourgeois snob, Jean muses in voiceover narration of his elegant lifestyle and the Thursday evening soirees that he hosts with his wife, Gabrielle. Most of all, he tells us about Gabrielle (Huppert), a glacially pale beauty whom he praises for her impassiveness. As if describing a Persian rug, Jean informs us that she is among his most prized possessions.
When Jean returns home, he finds a letter waiting for him in the bedroom. It is from Gabrielle. In it, she reveals that she has run off with another man.
And Jean – who dismisses emotion as "revolting" -- comes unglued. He collapses, breaking a glass and cutting his hand in the process. In short, Jean indulges in an old fashioned, turn-of-the-century meltdown when, lo and behold, Gabrielle comes home.
She is dressed in black, a veil placed dramatically over her eyes, and moves with the solemnity of a pallbearer. Evidently unwilling to escape her bourgeois prison, Gabrielle had hoped to beat Jean home and dispose of the letter.
No such luck -- for her, for Jean or for the viewing audience.
Gabrielle is almost a caricature of self-conscious artiness as our unhappy couple sinks their respective fangs into one another for what feels like an eternity. Chéreau means to show the dissolution of a marriage – Jean is filled with hurt and jealousy, Gabrielle with dry resentment -- but their sniping comes without the insight and revelation one might expect to follow. Instead, screenwriters Chéreau and Anna-Louise Trividic provides chestnuts like, "The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable." That Greggory and Huppert manage to inject a bit of empathy into these shrill characters is a testament to their considerable gifts as actors.
Chéreau employs a number of devices to add heft to his drama, such as oversized text popping up onscreen and cinematographer Eric Gautier alternating between color and black and white. What it adds up to is anybody's guess.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is first-rate. Cinematographer Gautier works in a sumptuous array of pastels that certainly gussy up the general ugliness of tone.
The movie's French audio track, flat but serviceable, is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are available in English.
Whatever the film's shortcomings, the DVD's producers deserve credit for supplemental material that helps provide context. Clocking in at 35 minutes and 22 seconds are generally insightful and interesting interviews with Chéreau, Huppert and Greggory.
The disc also includes three deleted scenes (9:33) with introductory commentary from Chéreau. The most notable of the trio is dubbed "The Russian Song," a technically proficient single shot that Chéreau cut for being too long.
Rounding out the extras are trailers for Darshan, the Embrace; A Hole in One; Destiny Has No Favorites; Unknown White Male; and This Film Is Not Yet Rated. There is also a theatrical trailer for Gabrielle.
Think of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the wit. Or Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage without the insight. Or Closer without the lapdance. You get the idea.