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
Joseph Conrad wrote his novella, "The Return" in tribute to Henry James, whose "The Spolis of Poynton" inspired him to write about a man who regards people as objects of ownership-- and is gobsmacked when his most prized possession, his wife, walks out on him. On the page it's a tight little chamber piece, with overtones of Ibsen and Strindberg. On the screen the great Patrice Chereau turns it into something else -- an opera in which the images sing rather than the performers. Pascale Greggory is in top form as a haute bourgeois "man who has everything" whose smugness masks a total disdain for feeling. When the superb Isabelle Huppert leaves a note to say she's leaving, the brandy decanter he drops echoes like the sword of Siegfried in Chereau's famed production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. (Fabio Vacchi's amazing Alban Berg-like score seals the deal on this aspect of the work.) The dramatic set-to that results finds our non-hero groping for words to speak to the feelings he's never experienced before -- longing, regret, and finally grief at the loss of a love he's never allowed himself to know.
As far from Merchant-Ivory as one can possibly imagine Chereau and production designer Olivier Radot (new to la famille Chereau) place the action in a museum-like mansion where a small army of servants move about at the service of this infernal couple and their friends. Scenes of their fashionable parties suggest the Verdurins in Proust with cinematographer Eric Gauthier indulging in a color palette that makes the screen seem like a Manet come to life.
Chereau is doubtless familiar with what Georges Bataille wrote of Manet: "A little superficial perhaps, but driven by inner forces that gave him no rest, Manet was possessed by a desire for something beyond his reach which he never fully understood and which left him for ever tantalized and unsatisfied, on the brink of nervous exhaustion." That's perfect description of the emotional heart of this very great film.
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