Gabrielle (2005) & Isabelle Huppert Q&A
On the surface it can seem flippant and reductive sometimes to turn my attention to this place, given the state of the wider world and the absolutely numbing events of even just the past 7 days. Political poison on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be swilling through the culture, contributing to indiscriminate and horrific violence, marinating in incalculable ignorance, hatred and stupidity – as it stands these may be the historical footnotes of what is evolving into a truly wretched year. But we have to find some solace and comfort in seemingly trivial asides, to focus our attention on our hobbies and the things we love in life, which brings me rather hesitantly to my last cinema visit where I took a welcome break from the hysterical humdrum of Hollywood’s summer season. The visit was inspired by the presence of Isabelle Huppert, widely regarded as one of the finest European actresses currently drawing breath, who was in London town to deliver the lead performance in Phaedra which was by the Barbican. Not wanting to miss a ripe chance of movie exploitation the film curators asked Huppert to nominate one of her favourite films that she starred in and support a screening with a post-coital Q&A, so given the paucity of similar events at the BFI over the past few months I ambled along for a screening of 2005’s Gabrielle. I first became of her due to her international role in the unfairly maligned Heaven’s Gate, the isosceles in the love triangle between herself, Kris Kristofferson and Chris Walken, playing the Western trope of the whore with a heart of gold that she managed to animate with a denser sense of melancholic purpose. In the intervening decades she has become one of the finest actresses of her generation, forging long collaborative careers with the likes of Claude Chabrol and more recently Michael Haneke, a elusive and mysterious screen presence who seems to draw upon inner reservoirs of strength to overcome burdens in films also helmed by the likes of Godard, Preminger, Andrzej Wajda and even MIA 1990’s auteur Hal Hartley.
In this 19th century period tale, directed by Patrice Chéreau, Huppert features in what she regards as one of her favourite performances. It’s the early 1900s and from the perspective of the chattering classes Gabrielle Hervey has it all: well preserved, admired in the social community and not short of a few francs in the form of her a wealthy and temperately devoted husband, Jean (Pascal Greggory). As always however a public face obscures a private façade, as Gabrielle feels like a trophy possession, trapped in affection starved arranged marriage, driving her to make a potentially catastrophic break to follow a secret lover out of Paris and the confines of polite society. This decision comes to light when Jean returns home to discover one of those infamous ‘Dear Jean’ letters, a further complication arising when having dismissed the servants in his abstract rage Gabrielle returns to their lavish apartment to confront him and her dangerous decision to abandon her exile. What follows is an intimate conversation on their union and lives, culled from the Joseph Conrad short story which forms the spine of this intimate interrogation.
Truth be told the film didn’t connect with me, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of what could broadly be termed ‘costume dramas’ but I will always appreciate a well-crafted and performed film, regardless of its germinating genre. My first impression was of a film which seems bizarrely over-directed, with an opening salvo at a upper class society function which has been cut and timed to the tensions of a horror film, including whip-pan hysterics and tense reaction shot close-ups. No doubt Chéreau is attempting to emulate the shark-pool minefield of the elite class protocols and social decorum of the era, a period where an incorrect selection of dessert spoon or inappropriate quip can result in a brutal and unforgiving social excommunication. From here the film advances into a very theatrical piece as the remainder is essentially a powerful two-hander, as Jean and Gabrielle lock horns in the gender battlefield of the late 19th century, she reaching toward the Elysium of genuine love and affection, he obsessed with maintaining decorum and propriety, while nursing the wounds of his freshly gouged masculine identity. The production design and costumes are exquisite as you’d expect of a high class period drama, and Huppert in particular anchors the film with her unexpected flourishes and reactions, and gets the films killer line as the curtain drops before the third-act epilogue.
The rather swift Q&A was reasonably illuminating and Huppert seemed relatively at ease, even cracking the odd joke or two in a sharp digression from her usual aloof and implacable screen persona. She explained how she is of the creative breed that bring a firmly formed character to the director, then with small tweaks and ameliorations they both decide on a final portrait to present to an audience. Quite specifically she remarked that the likes of Verhoeven and Chabrol never gave her one single word of direction, leaving the path open for her to grip the character on set and while shooting, an approach she adores in comparison to certain other unnamed directors who get in the way and can wreck damage through distrust and micromanaging methodologies. Other than that there wasn’t much more to say, its been a week and I don’t recall much else from the event to be honest, other than remarking with a glint in her eye that the imminent Elle should be shortly raising eyebrows across Europe. It’s already been controversially monikored as a ‘rape-comedy’ by the continental equivalents of the odious Daily Heil after its storming Cannes unveiling, I think with Verhoeven at the helm there might just be some Swiftian satirical purpose underneath such facile and shrieking pearl clutching. So very quickly in terms of recommendations you simply must see Haneke’s harrowing The Piano Teacher and Chabrol’s psychological thriller La Cérémonie to see Huppert at her very best, with Gabrielle yielding a fine performance at its binary core;