Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) speaks eloquently (in voice over) about his wealth and his friends as he steps off a train and begins his short trek home. He talks at length about his distinguished, attenuated dinners that he throws for friends every Thursday, and then begins to talk about his wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). We watch them dine at a huge table of friends, including the editor in charge of Jean's newspaper who spews theory on the decline of theater. Gabrielle talks lovingly of Jean, as if he is the only man deserving of oxygen. Not but a few days later, Jean, still in voice over, is pontificating on how Gabrielle is his "favorite possession" when all of a sudden he finds a letter on his desk. What is disclosed in this letter will cause Jean and Gabrielle to be at each other's throats for the entirety of the film, with both parties drawing a bit of blood.
Actually, the film is based on The Return, a short story from the late, great Joseph Conrad, best known for writing Heart of Darkness, the source material for Apocalypse Now. The existential mood is still palpable in Gabrielle, but not in such a broad sense and not done with such conviction. The film's tour de force comes in the reliably brilliant Huppert and her match, Greggory. After being the driving force for two Michael Haneke films and a small part in the David O. Russell existential freak-out I Heart Huckabees, Huppert comes into this turn-of-the-century piece with a belly of fire and eyes that could turn you to stone. Her lines are delivered with coldness and a terrifying dead calm. Greggory plays Jean with the brooding look of dark clouds rolling over the landscape. Looking at the dinner scene after Gabrielle talks to her servant girl (an extraordinary Claudia Coli), there is a sense of utter terror as the two throw verbal darts at each other with remarkable dispassion.
Director Patrice Chéreau keeps things interesting with stunning shadowy atmosphere and a dense, stark mood, breathlessly rendered by Eric Gautier's camerawork. Chéreau also throws in cymbal splashes of artsy dodging: text appears instead of spoken words, the screen shifts from black and white to color. These maneuvers keep the viewer on their toes, for sure, but they also interrupt the Ibsen-cum-Strindberg simplicity and integrity of the story. It throws off the momentum of the piece and never really amounts to much, especially in the extrinsic ending. However, the film cauterizes this with Greggory and Huppert's consistent performances and an end scene that could turn a heart into ice. If nothing else, it will make you think about that bachelor party you're throwing in a few weeks.
Run time: 90 mins
In Theaters: Friday 9th September 2005
Box Office USA: $89.7k
Distributed by: IFC First Take
Production compaines: Micro scope
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 13
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Producer: Joseph Strub, Serge Catoire, Ferdinanda Frangipane
Screenwriter: Patrice Chéreau
Starring: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard as Gabrielle, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as Sophie, Robert Charlebois as Robert Charlebois, Véronique Beaudet as Emmanuelle
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