‘I love her as a collector does his most prized possession’, announces Jean (Pascal Greggory), a wealthy publisher in pre-WWI Paris, of his socialite wife of ten years Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). The husband’s arrogant self-regard is punctured however, when he discovers a letter written by his spouse, which admits to an infidelity with an unnamed lover. On her return the same evening to the marital home, she declares, ‘If I had believed you loved me, I would never have come back.’
Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s The Return, a London-set novella in which the wife has a near-silent role, Gabrielle isn’t your conventionally polite period chamber drama. Director Patrice Chereau (Intimacy, Those that Love Me Can Take the Train) hones in on the raw, unsettling emotions overwhelming the protagonists, whose lives are governed by restrictive social conventions. There are clear echoes of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and Chereau’s visual motifs - mirrors, glass cases, closing doors, and constricting clothes - reinforce the notion of entrapment.
Unfolding almost exclusively within the theatrical confines of an opulent, belle époque mansion, Gabrielle is a highly stylised film, with arbitrary shifts from colour to black and white, text blown up onto the screen, and a discordant classical score. Huppert and Greggory give powerfully contrasting performances: he blusters, rages and eventually explodes into sexual violence, whilst she tearfully retreats into herself, using silence as a weapon in her quest for freedom.