Combustible Celluloid
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With: Isabelle Huppert, Pascal Greggory, Claudia Coli
Written by: Patrice Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad
Directed by: Patrice Chéreau
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/05/2005

Gabrielle (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Screams from a Marriage

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If you're convinced that Americans are getting dumber by the minute and that they don't make movies like they used to, you can take solace this weekend with the extraordinary new film Gabrielle, from director Patrice Chéreau (Queen Margot, Intimacy). Gabrielle opens at the Roxie and at the Rafael Film Center.

Based loosely on a Joseph Conrad novel, and set in the Paris of 1912, Gabrielle tells the story of a disintegrating marriage. Jean (Pascal Greggory, Time Regained) arrives home to find a note from his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert); she's left him for another man. Unexpectedly, she returns home, having changed her mind. The rest of the film is an emotional dance as the partners try to grasp this new wrinkle in their relationship and their own personal places within it.

Chéreau utilizes cinematic tricks, such as reverting from black-and-white to color, slow motion and cutting almost as an essay, challenging the audience to distinguish between movies and real emotion. His use of close-ups and wide shots by turns diminishes or strengthens the characters.

As in all battles-of-the-sexes, the woman has the upper hand, and there's no better combatant than Ms. Huppert (The Piano Teacher, I Heart Huckabees), who can initiate any number of various emotional riptides beneath her icy gaze. Many scenes show poor Jean trying to gain an upper hand, berating his wife, then forgiving her, then flying off into a jealous rage. But she gives as good as she gets, saying ever so calmly how his physical presence inside of her makes her sick.

Gabrielle only lowers her guard, oddly, around the family housekeeper, Yvonne (Claudia Coli), though she lowers it carefully, intermittently, so as not to let the help know how much Gabrielle needs her. Yvonne and her fellow maids hover in and about the various rooms, providing yet another layer of discomfort and agitation. Jean tries to keep his arguments in a low voice so as not to let them overhear, but Gabrielle does not care.

Chéreau's previous film, Intimacy (2001), caused a stir with its sex scenes, but had no real center; it used emptiness to describe emptiness. Gabrielle is another matter entirely; though it is an intellectual exercise, it's by no means a chilly or empty one. The director's skillful handing and the superb performances are liable to manipulate a smart audience as easily as they manipulate one another. It's a film for the body and mind.

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