The ill-fated marriage, circa 1912 France, that comes to a simmer and then a boil in Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle began rather badly 10 years before we meet its protagonists.
The man, Jean (Pascal Greggory), was already well into middle age, living a life of aristocratic contentment, and certain that he needn't bother himself with love. Then, across a field, he saw Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), and soon they wed. But their love was not what we might imagine. They slept in separate twin beds, didn't consummate their marriage for five months, and now, after 10 years, she still won't let him see her naked.
This all explodes in a 24-hour period after Jean reads Gabrielle's note saying that she's left him for another man. But she returns after just a few hours, having changed her mind about the affair, although not about the unhappiness of her marriage. They talk, they argue, they say things they mean. Jean, who is splendidly self-centered, coolly reflects: "Nothing in my life even vaguely resembles this. It has its interests." And as for why she won't déshabillé for him: "The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable."
OK, then. Conversation over.
For all of its modern trappings ... jump cuts, extreme close-ups, some hand-held camera work, some scenes shot in black and white, and a few freeze frames, with huge words of dialogue superimposed briefly over the actors on screen, as if to give power to the printed word ... Gabrielle is essentially a drawing-room costume drama and a mannered period piece. It's about rich people and their impoverished emotional lives, set in a world where grand soirees replace true human intimacy, and where the silent servants ... the couple has three people just to dress and undress them ... know what's happening in their employers' lives long before they do.
Jean and Gabrielle talk a lot: In fact, Gabrielle is all talk, adapted by Chéreau (Queen Margot) from a story by Joseph Conrad. You can ponder the puzzle of their characters if you like, but all we can really decide is whose point of view to trust. Frankly, if you ask me, they're both pretty messed up. These aren't real people, and they're barely simulacra. They're articulate ideologies, and unlike the naked emotions of a Bergman drama, Gabrielle has too many cinematic tics to go with all the talk.
Still, it's gorgeously filmed, and the acting is grand. As Jean slowly loses control of the situation, Gabrielle seizes it, and Greggory and Huppert portray these shifting power centers with satisfying refinement. Huppert especially is icy hot, and she further secures her place in the modern pantheon of Moreau and Deneuve before her. When the camera crowds Gabrielle, and she explains the pain of her unrequited search for happiness, you almost begin to worry that Huppert has never been happy a day in her life. In French, with subtitles.