Dry times, dry times. I spent most of June and July in New York, looking for interesting films to recommend to you, and came up with very little. One disappointment was Patrice Chéreau's "Gabrielle," based on Joseph Conrad's most un-Conrady story "The Return."
Set in Paris in 1912, "Gabrielle" is the story of the end of a marriage that never should have begun. It is told to us by Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory), a self-made man who has acquired everything he believed he wanted or needed: lots of money, a great house, many maids, much (uncomfortable) furniture, and - oh, yes - a wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). He and she host a Thursday salon, at which people who actually laugh, talk, gossip, smoke and drink show up, including the very shaggy editor of a magazine M. Hervey has acquired in his search for respectability and esteem. Gabrielle is the perfect hostess, the perfect wife, the perfect ornament.
Until one evening, when Jean comes home to find a note from her, saying she has left him for another man. There are many responses we might expect from him, but all he gives us is petulance and the dawning realization that his staff of maids and his Thursday salon guests will know of the scandal. And then, just moments later, Gabrielle comes home; she has not been able to go through with her plan. But it is too late to salvage things, and the film carries us through to a bitter end.
As I say, Jean tells us the story by letting us listen into his endless monologue, first of his satisfaction with his life and then with his horror at the discovery of his unfaithful wife. But he is not concerned with her, nor with anything resembling what you or I might do or say in that situation. And this is the film's fatal flaw: Jean is a dullard, a man lacking any interest for us, a man so concerned with surfaces that he has no interior at all. Chéreau should have given us some sense of a real human being hiding inside that façade, but he does not; spending an hour and a half with him is nothing but a punishment for us in the audience.
The magnificent Huppert, who in other films has shown us everything from blatant sexuality to gorgeous serenity, who as an actress can open herself up to almost any challenge, is confined here to an almost mute role as the object of Jean's bizarre fantasy of marriage. She has perhaps a dozen lines in the whole film, and none of them is at all revealing; her aborted departure from and return to the marriage has no resonance.
Chéreau's camera moves constantly through the mauseleum of a mansion, past inert statues, through endless corridors leading only to other empty rooms barely lit by unseen sources; maids appear and disappear in their perfect outfits, ready always to help, but mysterious in their ability to see and overhear everything. We can only wish the film had been made from their point of view.