Paris shortly before World War I. Wealthy and self-satisfied, Jean Hervey is returning home from work, describing life with his wife of 10 years, Gabrielle; he values her as impassive and stolid. However, that day she's gone, leaving a letter that she's joining a man she loves. Jean is devastated, but within minutes she's returned, telling him that her resolve has failed. Over the next two days, he questions, demands, begs, and parries with her: why did she leave, why did she return, does she love him, did she ever love him, who is her lover, is she passionate with her lover? She's calm as alabaster, reserved. Is she in danger? When she makes an offer, how will he respond? Written by
Patrice Chéreau and his team continue to amaze. Their recent movies--"Intimacy" and "Son frère"--have been wild, and Isabelle Huppert has played some wild roles too. But "Gabrielle" is a masterpiece of control, an equal of the studio movies of Fritz Lang in the 1940s. A benchmark is Hitchcock's "Rebecca." Like those movies, every shot here, each turn of the head, is a statement of emotion (and a test of the actors' skill). Now not only music tells what the characters are doing, light is further nuanced with color. The almost-homage to black-and-white is astonishing, because it can also be lit into color, showing the characters' being forced to be here and now without escaping to old assumptions: a bitten lip bleeds red, a serving woman elaborately brings a softly glowing lamp upstairs. (A friend objects that the house has electricity, but the same friend puts candles on the dinner table, and this lamp has a purpose.) There's a thesis in Film Studies for the communicative devices of each scene and what is referenced, like the way there is a less flamboyant version of scenes in Ruiz's "Le temps retrouvé." But then being restrained is the theme, and the tension is extreme without any thunderstorm or overt thrill (a thrill for these characters might be the horror). If the source story was Conrad's homage to Henry James, here is a movie worthy of their capacity for narrative of the highest watchfulness and precision. Stay totally alert, movie goers.
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