Formerly a prominent director of theatre and opera, Patrice Chéreau has nevertheless successfully managed the transition to filmmaking (and acting), and with films like La Reine Margot, Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train and Intimacy has shown that he can powerfully expand drama out onto the big screen without losing anything of the intensity of the theatrical experience. Somehow however, in Gabrielle it all goes terribly wrong.
An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s story The Return, the story is a small intimate one that is principally played out between two characters. Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) is a man who, after ten years of marriage, believes he understands his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) perfectly. Although there is little in the way of passion in their relationship, they have reached a position of perfect contentment in their arrangement together, as well as a comfortable place in society with a growing circle of friends who attend their weekly dinner parties. However, one day Gabrielle leaves Jean for another man, leaving only a brief note as explanation. Before Jean has even had time to read the letter and take in the import of its contents however, Gabrielle returns having immediately repented her decision.
Gabrielle’s return puts Jean in an awkward position. Unable to comprehend her rash and unpremeditated action in leaving him - particularly since she left him for a man he considers slimy and hateful - Jean is however even more disconcerted by her return. He has been caught unawares, unable to compose his thoughts and consider his next action. It would really have been much better for him if she had stayed away or even died. At least such an action would have left him with the model of the correct manner to adopt in such a traditional and commonplace situation. By confronting him with his own failure Jean has been forced to deal with something to be feared and avoided wherever possible – the passions that have been revealed in his wife, and the passions that have been aroused in himself. Jean’s initial reaction is to find a way to simply erase what has happened, but with Gabrielle’s departure and return occurring on the day before their regular Thursday evening dinner parties, that is not going to be easy.
Theatrically, there’s more than enough material to explore in such a close, intense situation, a Strindberg-like wallow in the depths of the hatred engendered by two people tied together in the complex arrangement of comfortable accommodation mixed with mutual hatred for their co-dependency on each other. Essentially, it proposes not just a simple contradiction of impulses of passion on one side conflicting with the control of one’s emotions on the other, nor with the consequences of submitting to those passions, but the need to suffer for one’s passions. Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory are superb actors for this kind of material, but capable of bringing a remarkable degree of finesse in subtle expressions, gestures and posture, suggesting underlying depths of inner turmoil beneath the surface calm - Greggory in particular having regularly worked with Chéreau both in film and extensively in the theatre. It’s practically a masterclass in performance, often taking place almost in real-time sequences, and Chéreau’s ability to draw out the nuances of the material is no less masterful.
Masterful perhaps, but also cold, calculated, meticulous and almost arrogant in its psychological dissection of these characters emotions that nonetheless fails to breathe any real life or humanity into them. Clearly in love with Conrad’s little story and the abilities of Huppert and Greggory to bring much out of the characters, Chéreau exhausts the situation of the limited potential it offers and, since suffering in silence just won’t work as well on the movie screen as it might do in literature, he even expands on the story of Jean’s downfall to encompass Gabrielle’s point of view, in the process squeezing any life or ambiguity out it. Attempting to lift it out of any tedious literary meditation and beyond its mannered theatrical presentation, the director also tries various cinematic techniques to make the piece come to life. He randomly switches between black-and-white and colour, for no apparent reason other than the fact that it might look good, and unnecessarily fills the screen with enlarged portions of text that fail illuminate and only seem like empty stylistic devices. It all feels like a cold, mechanical and academic presentation of what amounts to, in the words of one French critic of the film, “un petit drame bourgeois superficiel et pompeux” - a pompous, superficial little bourgeois drama.
Gabrielle is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Barring the rare and mostly insignificant minor cropping of a 1.85:1 image to 1.78:1, and the even rarer non-anamorphic presentation, Artificial Eye releases can usually be relied upon sight-unseen to have obtained the best sources available for their transfers at the correct aspect ratio. It’s astonishing therefore to find that the 2.35:1 CinemaScope presentation for Gabrielle cropped down to a ratio of 1.78:1. It’s an incredibly poor choice in this film since the text screens which make full use of the screen are consequently truncated to the left and right of the screen. In terms of technical aspects, the image looks marvellous, with terrific clarity, detail and tone both in the colour and the black-and-white sections. Some slight grain and minor dot-crawl can be seen causing a faint flickering in the stability of the image, but not to any significant extent. Where it not for the aspect ratio problem, this would be close to perfect – but the cropping of the image is a serious flaw.
A comparison is provided below to show the amount of cropping that has occurred. The top image is a 1.78:1 capture from the actual feature presentation, the second image is the same scene as it appears in the deleted scenes in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. (Note: Please see update below for information on obtaining corrected discs if you have already purchased a faulty one).
Artificial Eye have responded to this aspect ratio problem and apologised to customers for the error, stating that they will happily replace any affected discs. Anyone with a problem disc should email email@example.com with details of where they purchased the DVD from and a replacement disc will be posted to them as soon as it becomes available.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Both mixes are pretty much flawless, crisply clear with excellent tone and definition. The surround mix is practically mono for the greater part of the film, but there is a more subtle and effective use of ambience here.
English subtitles are included and are optional in a clear white font. They also seem to suffer from the truncated text on the screen, being forced to translate certain passages as in elliptic fragments. A sample of the on-screen text is shown below.
The Trailer (1:49) is presented letterboxed at 1.78:1, however the three Deleted Scenes (9:37) are all shown anamorphically at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. These scenes are certainly of interest as they are introduced by the director himself and most were deleted for reasons of concision, cutting back on flashbacks and digressions from the main plot. The longest deleted scene is a long pointlessly elaborate flowing dolly shot at the dinner party. The Interviews (35:24) are intercut between Huppert, Greggory and Chéreau, providing a long and detailed exploration of the film’s adaptation, theme, characters and technical aspects of the making. It’s comprehensive and not without interest, but this much additional elaboration on such a thin story is really excessive, with the result that Chéreau comes across as more than a little pompous, conceited and pretentious. I admire the fact that Artificial Eye go out of their way to interview the film director wherever possible on their releases, and find this a much more useful way of imparting information about the making of a film than the standard making-ofs and audio commentaries, but in some cases – like this one – there is little to add when the existing features already cover the film in more than enough detail. Nevertheless, in the long Interview With Patrice Chéreau (38:33) the director goes into more detail on the formal aspects of the making of the film and the contributions played by the cinematography, the editing, the music and, of course, the performances, giving more general thoughts on nature of directing and acting.
Gabrielle would seem to have been conceived with the intention of explaining or understanding the figure of Gabrielle in Joseph Conrad’s story The Return, but as if that somewhat arrogant and wrong-headed notion did not render the film a pointless enough exercise – one that rips the soul out of the piece - Patrice Chéreau goes to even greater length to over-elaborate every scene of a rather tedious situation in a dry, academic, lifeless manner, filled with pointless cinematic excesses and stylistic devices. If however you are content to view the film purely on the technical level, there is much to ponder in Chéreau’s idiosyncratic approach to adapting Conrad for the screen and much to admire in the remarkable acting performances of Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert. However, with the luscious CinemaScope cinematography being unfortunately mutilated in a cropped aspect ratio, even viewing the film for its surface attractions can hardly be recommended here.