(France - 2005)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Pascale Greggory, Claudia Coli
Genre: Drama
Director: Patrice Chereau
Screenplay: Patrice Chereau & Anne-Louise Trividic from Joseph Conrad's novel The Return
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Composer: Fabio Vacchi
Runtime: 90 minutes

Wealthy aristocrat Jean (Pascale Greggory) fashions himself an important member of high society due to hosting a weekly party. Everything in his life is in order, and he has all the possessions he desires, his favorite being his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). When Gabrielle leaves him for another man only to return to Jean for good 3 hours later, it sets off a descent into hell of Bergmanesque proportions. Jean assumes his trophy wife returned for love, then for something good about him or their life together. This is a tale of disintegration - Jean’s - the marriage simply goes along with that.

Jean always had all the power, but once Gabrielle sees he truly cares for her, even if in his own somewhat twisted way, he’s done for. If she was right about him not caring she could have came and went as she pleased, lived in his house but been free to cavort with whomever she pleased. Since he does care Gabrielle can hurt him in a million ways; his heart, pride, self-esteem, and dignity are there for the crushing.

Huppert is at her perverse best. Joseph Conrad’s short story was told entirely from the male point of view, so it had to be altered to warrant casting an actress of Huppert’s standing. Even in a case like The Cement Garden where Andrew Birkin didn’t tinker with Ian McEwen’s novel all that much, the film experience is significantly different. The mere physical embodiment of all the characters takes some of the focus away from Jack, the be all and end all in the novel since everything is seen through his eyes, filtered through him. I greatly admire both versions even though the way I perceive the same story is totally different. In that case, Charlotte Gainsbourg is so good she steals a lot of the focus, causing the audience to guess at and examine her intentions, which adds a dimension that isn’t in the book (perhaps for the better). Greggory isn’t world famous like Huppert, but he more than holds his own with her, allowing her to blend in with the woodwork like his other objects until it’s time for her to once again bring him down to earth.

Huppert is largely cast against type. Rather than being the enigmatic mystery woman she’s as transparent as can be. Jean gives monologues and soliloquies while Gabrielle just sits there. You feel this pompous, possessive, selfish, chauvinistic fool Jean is an awful husband, yet you can feel sorry for him because he has feelings too, and is less twisted than his wife. Of course, part of what I’m saying is due to the portion of their lives we are seeing. Gabrielle has been scorned for ten years, a decade of being his object may warrant a certain amount of revenge, and that’s what the film is depicting. We side with Jean because we are privy to the night when she gets even, if we saw much more of his objectification, demeaning, and neglect we’d obviously feel differently. Also, it becomes clear that Gabrielle’s plan is to punish him for the rest of his life, to live this lie where they are together but a million miles apart.

Gabrielle is one of the most inert characters in cinematic history. She’s so still and quiet throughout the ordeal that it’s a shock when she actually speaks, but she gets more out of a handful of words than Jean gets out of a million. Since Jean can’t hurt her anymore she simply refuses to react to anything he says. Gabrielle can hurt Jean, and each time she bothers to open her mouth she does so to tighten the vice.

Though Chereau keeps Conrad’s 1912 setting and the costumes and servants that go with it, it’s easy to forget this chamber piece is taking place at any specific time because any relationship will be disastrous if one member refuses the other. Chereau focuses on the timeless aspects of the story rather than the difficulty of a woman breaking away from her husband 100 years ago.

Gabrielle is fragile and weak, but by withholding her heart she appears strong. It often seems like a man can’t win with a woman because, if they aren’t simply indifferent, they either try to help you or try to hurt you. . I’m sure women have an entirely opposite perspective, so maybe we can agree if both people are working for a relationship, something will be there even if it’s not what either hopes for, but once one starts working against it than it’s a losing battle for both. Sometimes I’m not sure there’s any more to compatibility than that.

Chereau tries to keep the film from resembling a play by switching from color to black and white, using freeze frames, intertitles, and filming a chamber piece in CinemaScope. Unfortunately, his effort does at least as much to detract from the film, amounting to little more than distilling the pain. I might rather watch Bergman’s artistic pictures, give me his unjustly neglected surrealist nightmare Hour of the Wolf, but Saraband is superior to Gabrielle. The reason is Bergman employs a no frills style; it is what is it is, an expression of pain. It’s not about being interesting to look it; it’s about not glamorizing something there’s nothing glamorous about. Hell is not supposed to be gorgeous.

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The acting totally makes the film. Gabrielle has one servant Yvonne (Claudi Coli) she confides in because she has no one else, though she can’t totally trust her because Jean is, after all, the boss. As far as speaking roles go, it’s predominantly just Greggory and Huppert. Actually, it’s really Greggory. His performance is so impressive because he gets us to feel for him even though we don’t particularly like or admire his character. Greggory also does a great job of portraying the downward spiral, showing the weight on him as each illusion is crushed until there’s not only nothing left of their marriage, there’s nothing left of him. And Huppert, is well, Huppert. There’s no match in the history of cinema for her ability to convey so much without words.



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