Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gabrielle (2006)

(Written for the Lovesick Blogathon.)


"Francis never loved anybody. That's why it's easy for him to be a saint."

Gabrielle is the latest in my line of perverse Valentine's Day viewing picks -- on a day set aside to celebrate love in all its forms, there's something delightful about taking a look at a film that orbits around the absence of love. The marriage between Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) and Jean (Pascal Greggory) is a marriage of status and convenience, not emotion. In his opening narration, Jean speaks of his love for Jean while at the same time claiming, "We have no need for intimacy." In this same initial passage, he speaks of his friends claiming that he has a face that looks like it was made to make money, to be a successful businessman; tying these two concepts together in the same breath makes a salient point -- Jean, despite his convictions to the contrary, conducts his personal life like his business life -- without becoming overbearing about it. His love is a lazy and dispassionate love, which is why the old cliche of the falling glassware as utilized here stings like it rarely ever does; the dropped decanter occurs after Jean discovers and reads the bold Dear John letter from Gabrielle, and the shattering coupled with the screen's explosion into white makes clear that, for possibly the first time in his life, Jean is feeling something.

"How do I compose the appropriate face?"

Jean's difficulty in expressing those feelings is from where the majority of the drama in Gabrielle stems. Jean says of his social circle that thy are "men and women who fear emotion and failure more than fire, war or disease," which is probably why Jean gets along with them; thus, it's something of a shock for him to have to navigate this unfamiliar territory, affairs of the heart being something that can't be mapped out and logically broken down like a business plan or a mathematic equation. The central sequence in this navigation is a long, painfully awkward dinner sequence wherein he and Gabrielle eat and glare, occasionally tossing verbal daggers in an attempt to break one another. Greggory and Huppert are at their peaks here, with their every phrase landing like a boxer's body blow; I've long been a fan of Huppert, but Greggory (who first came to my attention with one of the decade's best performances in Raja) is quickly becoming equally important to world cinema in my eyes. His work here as Jean is stellar -- his face exudes a haughty seediness at all times, yet his expressive features always keep you clued in to the roiling mass of confusion underneath Jean's exterior and how difficult it is for him to keep it together.

Patrice Chereau's direction, too, is elegant in its ability to bend time as a corrective to Jean's presumptiveness. His visual trickiness, dismissable as gimmickry at first, gains importance upon examination -- the shifts from black-and-white to color mirror the change in Jean's perspective on everything he thinks he knows, and the occasional superimposition of text onscreen points towards the lack of communication and assumption of everything's-fine stasis that proves to be factors in the relationship's breakdown. My favorite moment, though, is the fade to white at the end of the second act that mirrors the blistering white that occurs when the decanter falls; in the first instance, it's the glass that shatters, but it might as well be Jean's world, and the reoccurance of the white screen happens as Jean sits alone in the dark, surveying all that has crumbled around him. His pride sustained him for a long time, but we all know how pride and a fall are linked.

"What is it to know somebody?"

This is obviously a film about Jean, yet titling it after Gabrielle makes the same kind of sense that the title of Sansho the Bailiff makes -- Gabrielle is the engine that drives and inspires everything in the story. It's also significant that she comes to represent everything that Jean thought he could do but could not; she reconciles herself to the live that she had been leading, bereft of love as it was, while Jean becomes overwhelmed by the flood of emotions that addle his brain post-letter and demands something more in their wake. When Gabrielle lies on the bed and capitulates to convention by offering herself to Jean, what she's really offering is a repair of their marriage and social standing, but at the cost of Jean's re-killing of his heart. The control that Jean thought he had in life, he sees, belongs and always has belonged to Gabrielle -- he knows nothing of what he thinks he knows about her, their relationship, or the nature of what it is to love. His exit from the story and the life to which he can no longer relate seems the only natural response.

"He never returned."


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