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This is a hopeless story, but a brilliant film.
By that, I mean it's a cinema-graphic narrative that is bleak to point of utter despair: everything about this exposition of French rural existence of the 1930s leaves very little for the viewer to enjoy -- except for a brief portrait of an idyllic picnic by the lower middle-class family that forms the core of this story.
But, it is also superb film making from the director of A Pornographic Affair (1999), a film I very much admired, when I saw it. This film is much better.
Unlike Affair, where much of the action, shall I say, was behind closed doors and left much to imagination, the director here does the opposite. In fact, it couldn't be more in your face with the very long and often extreme close-ups used to explore the emotions of the aggrieved wife of Gilles, who is a laborer at a local steel mill. I didn't compile a time-scale for on screen presence for each of the three main players, but I'm sure that Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos) has the camera on her mostly with medium, close-up and extreme close-up shots. That's a very difficult piece of acting and Devos's skill is, at times, almost beyond belief.
The story explores the limits of love, using a threesome of the husband, Gilles (Clovis Cornillac), Elisa, and her sister, Victorine (Laura Smet). Gilles lusts after Victorine and the two engage in an incestuous affair; gradually, Elisa learns the truth and because she loves Gilles so much she tries to help Gilles get over it all.
But, Gilles is obsessed with Victorine and loses interest in Elisa, despite her unwavering duty as a wife and mother to their three children. She has faith that Gilles will overcome his aberration and is willing to endue his contempt, disinterest and moral degeneracy so that he will eventually see the light, which is she. Or, so she hopes Gilles, for his own part, sees nothing wrong with his character or behaviour in effect, a total perversion of logic and love. Elisa, attempting to maintain her bleak, down-trodden and very limited world must accept that logic of perversion or suffer the consequences, whatever they may be. The denouement is therefore unavoidable when Elisa realizes she cannot abide that logic any more. As a viewer, you know that something will break and those final scenes will stay with you for a long time, I think.
The acting is first rate, even down to the children of the family. Devos not a raging beauty at all, and vaguely reminiscent of Kate Blanchett is just stunning; her movements, her facial expressions, her limpid eyes are all just perfect in conveying the torment of a wronged wife. Her tragedy, in my opinion, is that she loves too much. Cornillac does an excellent job as the boorish, lustful wannabe lover and husband. Smet is very good as the flighty and fanciful younger sister. I'd not seen any of these actors before; I'll be looking for them again.
The dialog is almost non-existent, as befitting many French films of this genre; nearly all of the real story Elisa's fight to save her marriage is exposed with looks, movements, sighs, tears and the never-ending drudge of existence with a jerk for a husband. I can't recall a better film that has portrayed a situation that is probably acted out, in real life, more often than we know or even think.
Matching the overall mood, the mise-en-scene is picture perfect: semi-rural France, small villages and houses, gray skies, rain, snow, mud, filth and dirty sex on the side. Music is muted, for the most part, the exception being at the dance hall where Elisa sees Gilles and Victorine dancing lasciviously to the rural fanfare.
If you want to see marriage in the raw, then this is a film for you. Those, however, who can't bear the thought of facing such issues, even in a fictional setting, are well advised to avoid this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What can a woman do when she finds out her husband is having an affair
with her own sister? Not much, according to this account, set in a
small town in Belgium in the forties. Elisa is the model of a perfect
wife who makes the discovery, but because of her circumstances, she
can't do much in order to stop Gilles to see Victorine, her younger and
Elisa finds herself in a position to go along with her discovery, and not to confront Gilles, at the beginning. Seeking help, Eliza turns to her church, where she confesses what her husband is doing, only to be spoken down by the priest who seems to take the straying husband's part! Then, afraid of losing Gilles, after she finds herself pregnant and not having any money of her own, she accepts Gilles' status quo as a solution to her problems.
In a surprise turn of events, Victorine finds a new suitor who appears to have means to support her in moderate comfort. Gilles is desperate because of his passion for the young woman and confesses his guilt to Elisa, who is so glad, thinking her problems are over. Just when everything seems to be getting back to normal we receive a shock watching Elisa's delayed outrage take shape.
"La Femme de Gilles" is a small and intimate film directed with sure hand by Frederic Fonteyne, who also wrote the screen play. Mr. Fonteyne shows great promise because he clearly understands what his characters are thinking at all times. His narrative is simple, but yet, it leaves us with images that haunt us because the way he involved us in absorbing his film.
Emmanuelle Devos, one of the best French actresses of her generation, gives a tour de force performance in the film. In fact, Ms. Devos is seen in basically all the frames of the movie. As Elisa, the actress gives her life and acts with such an intelligence that it's hard for the viewer to take his eyes away from this troubled woman who is a gentle soul that doesn't deserve what life has given her. She is a kind woman whose love for her twins and the infant son is easy to see. She is a loyal woman who feels betrayed by a husband that clearly doesn't appreciate her and who doesn't care about bringing shame to his household and to his in-law's.
The other two excellent performances are by Clovis Cornillac, who as Gilles, shows a perfect take on this man that strays because of the lust he feels for Victorine. Laura Smet, the beautiful Victorine, is also right for the part.
"La Femme de Gilles" is a film one recommend highly because of the work of Mr. Fonteyne and the exquisite Emmanuelle Devos.
'La Femme de Gilles' ('Gilles' Wife') began as a novel by Madeleine
Bourdouxhe and was transformed for the screen by Philippe Blasband,
Marion Hänsel and Frédéric Fonteyne who also directs this stunning and
controversial art piece. Certainly one of the most visually magnificent
films of recent years (cinematographer Virginie Saint-Martin) 'Gilles'
Wife' succeeds on every level: the story is unique, the direction is
liquid and languorous, and the cast is superlative.
Elisa (the remarkably sensitive Emmanuelle Devos) lives with her husband Gilles in what appears to be a perfect marriage: Elisa is the doting but sincerely in love housewife who spends her days caring for their twin daughters, cleaning house, cooking special meals, canning berry jams, keeping her husband satisfied sexually; Gilles (Clovis Cornillac) appears to be a loving husband, tender with Elisa, enamored with her, and content. Elisa has a younger attractive sister Victorine (Laura Smet) who visits this haven-like household frequently to see her nieces and almost from the start we sense there is an attraction between Gilles and Victorine. Elisa becomes pregnant with their third child and Gilles grows a bit distant. Elisa gradually acknowledges the fact that he is having an affair with Victorine and though hurt by the deception she decides the only way to keep Gilles is to allow him to discuss the matter with her. Patiently she listens to his fears that Victorine may have another lover and in fact allows Elisa to stalk Victorine to substantiate the affair. Elisa accomplishes her mission and Gilles is devastated with the truth, all the while paying little attention to the emotional sacrifices Elisa is making on his behalf. There are confrontations, Elisa even seeks out a priest to help her in resolving her pain but the priest doesn't pay attention and Elisa is left with silence. When eventually the affair between Gilles and Victorine ends Elisa has given birth to a son, accepts Gilles' remorse, and ultimately in her own quiet way finds a mode of redemption for her trials with an unfaithful husband.
The fact the Elisa is content to be just 'Gilles' wife' instead of maintaining her dignity is hard to swallow at first but in Emmanuelle Devos' gifts as an actress we are made to understand her choices. The triad of actors here are amazingly fine and they are directed with graceful sensitivity by Frédéric Fonteyne. As an extra on the DVD there is an extended conversation with Fonteyne who shares some of the deleted scenes - this viewer only wishes there were not deleted! - and gives one of the more intelligent surveys of a film's story and progress on record. The visual painting of the scenes is so very beautiful that each frame could be a canvas. This is an impressively fine and deeply moving film. Highest recommendation. Grady Harp
This is a riveting French film by the director and screenwriter of the
vastly inferior "Une Affaire Pornographique." It is minimalist in the
best sense of the word. There is very little dialogue. The film must
depend on the camera, lighting, and especially, the facial expressions
of the two lead actors to carry the film. It works remarkably well. The
actress and actor who play the husband and wife show how a couple who
know each other intimately can communicate meaningfully without words.
Unfortunately, it appears that another reason Gilles, the husband,
doesn't use many words is because he doesn't know very many, nor does
he have very many thoughts to articulate even if he could. Simply put,
the man is an oaf who is extremely lucky to have the devoted wife that
he does, and he doesn't deserve her.
Emmanuele Devos, who plays the wife, carries the film. She has a fascinating and expressive face that conveys her emotions without words. She also has an enigmatic smile that is hard to read. Why is she smiling, we wonder at times. Is she planning ahead, anticipating her victory over the 'other woman,' who also happens to be her sister? We are able to anticipate that she will be successful, primarily because we are able to see from the outset that her husband is no match for her intellectually, and that her sister, being a somewhat shallow floozy, will soon tire of Gilles and move on. All Elisa has to do is wait her out.
This having been said, I must state my opinion that the film is marred by an ending--which I will not reveal here--that we could probably see coming but hoped would not. The film is based on a novel I haven't read, so the same ending may occur in the source. But if so, endings have been changed before. The film would have been better, and more realistic, if it had ended a few frames before it did. The ending as it occurs just appears sensationalistic, shock for shock's sake, and the smartass camera angles employed by the director don't help. Other than that, this is a superb film. 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
**Warning: spoiler possible** I just saw the film this morning at a
This film is wonderful. I don't know where to start really. The story is taking place in a little city in Belgium or north of France during the Second World War (I believe). Elisa, the wife of Gilles, spends her day taking care of the house and the children. She is waiting for her husband to come home. One day, she suspects her sister and Gilles to have an affair.
The mastering of Frédéric Fonteyne is amazing. This story, yet simple, is beautifully written (with pal Philippe Blasband) and directed. Frédéric has such a great ability to show simple things with such great emotion. The acting of Emmanuelle Devos is stunning. The photography is absolutely amazing. One should see the film in theater!
I had the chance to see the movie before reading anything about it. If you like raw and subtle human emotions and are not afraid of slow-paced films, just run to see 'La femme de Gilles' before getting the story spoiled by an article. You won't be disappointed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film should be shown to students who aspire to make high quality movies so they can see how a master does it. The tension created in each silent scene is a miracle of acting, editing, directing and photography. The ending is not a surprise, because you feel in every shot the desperation that is mounting up. However I agree that the character's sense of responsibility and love towards her children are somewhat at odds with her inability to see herself as ever happy again, now that she realizes she has lost her husband's love forever, if she ever had it. But since we are meant to want to hold her back, the message is not at odds with feminist ideas. The movie makes us see the limitations imposed upon her. Parents, church, community -- all doors are closed. If anything, this movie makes us see what happens when a woman is so oppressed - hence the 40s setting. There is much to discuss and much to say about this movie. It's a joy to watch something so exquisitely made.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Gilles' Wife True to Form "Gilles' Wife" has few words, and even less
world, but it does have form: it says: the way to oblivion is oblivion.
Elisa's diminishment begins with her name: not only does she surrender her last name in marriage, but she makes no claim to her first. She is Gilles' wife. That's his view, her view, and the town's view. He's known, she's hidden.
He works in a steel mill, she does all the work of the household, which includes raising three children, cleaning floors on hands and knees, wringing out the laundry by hand, shoveling snow, raking leaves, cooking and serving meals, and anticipating Gillies every need. She's the good faithful wife.
This is the role she accepts, the bond she makes. She loves him as herself. For sure, her specific reading of her position is both typical and unusual mainly because Gilles is both utterly predictable and non-stereotypical. Yet her loyalty can be carried to the point of self-annulment as when she spies for him on her own sister (his lover), and more incredibly, when she attends to his batterer's thirst before she does her sister's battered bloodied face.
When Gilles is around, and he's around a lot for a worker, he takes up space in a way somewhere in between a corned-up Wordsworth peasant and a porned-up Tennessee Williams stud. He looms large in his pedestrian household, and much larger in bed where his thrusting, top heavy, sometimes rapacious, and sometimes brute sexuality is assumed. In one of countless bed scenes, he all but rapes his fully pregnant wife, his forced entry occurring in on key with his "no danger" sexologist's advice. There is no "yes" for her because there is no "no" for her. Gillie's oppressiveness is exercised on an intimate level.
His control of his her world is pervasive and effective, his authority godlike. His means include violence, and myriad forms of manipulation which allow him to obscure his power over his wife. He makes the gratuitous provocation of an affair with her younger sister seem natural, normal, and righteous. The sexual possession of both serves as a mechanism to sever the supportive friendship between the sisters.
And when his terrorizing and mania bring his affair to a disastrous end, he appropriates his wife's emotional being, feigning muteness and tears. When he finally resigns himself to the loss of his jeweled possession, he offers no apology or even admission of his assault, demeaning verbal attacks, and death threats toward her, instead 'confessing' only his own 'loss': "I ruined all the happiness I had" for a "good for nothing" woman.
Despite Eliza's strange adoration, and apparent masochism, she is never without doubt as to her husband's true nature. Her inexpressivity is telling, even from the opening bed scene, and her sensed thoughts display more dispassion than enthusiasm. In the dance hall scene, her repressed seething at his open betrayals and her own non-entity status, cannot be ignored--except of course by him. When she loses it in the garden scene, in her new son's presence, we grasp that her tolerance and restraints have limits. The gaps in her faith are tiny but real: she is not always responsive, not always deferent.
At one point she seeks explicit help in the confessional. She pleas: "I don't say a word (to him). If I yell at him (over his affair) he will leave me." To which the priest responds: "refrain from any kind of revolt against the Lord." God's will and her husband's will are one. Her stares at the wounded Christ on the church walls can only point to self-sacrifice. Jesus is for her; and Gillies is her cross.
But the confession is one concrete, public step: add on her husband's phony conversion to fidelity and the unraveling has begun. Her bond to him is weakened too by his having displaced her identity by adopting her emotions. Perhaps her mother's banishment of Gillies from the family home has further bolstered her resolve. Whatever, the crucible of her existence is exerting a relentless pressure.
And she soon recognizes that her life is unavailable to her, that she has been systematically undermined and used by the coercions of bed and home, that she has been cut off from both her sister and her mother, and yes that her husband is no more than a shirt--one that, like his concealed life, she will never launder again. But because he is the norm whose sway exceeds his harem world, she can sight no exit. So stepping carefully into the upstairs window frame, she gradually, as if in unison with the natural world, makes a graceful descent. But even lying on the paved walkway, she is beyond immediate help: "go get Gilles," is what is said by the bystanders.
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