Those who love us can take the train, but in Patrice Chéreau’s latest, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story The Return, a man who loves only himself is given the same permission. A creature of intellectual self-absorption, Jean (Pascal Greggory) arrives by train at his bourgie palace only to learn that his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) has left him for another man. She says her goodbye in a Dear Jean letter, and by replaying—over and over again—the awkward gesture of a husband reaching for and picking up his wife’s missive, Chéreau cleverly charts the man’s paranoia—the overwhelming fear that something is about to challenge his arrogant sense of complacency. Just as he judges his wife’s motivations for leaving and, later, returning to their home, he seems to be estimating the contents of the letter even before he’s opened it. This is the complex anxiety Chéreau’s images and Greggory’s master class in acting intensely summon.
As loyal as Chéreau’s film is to Conrad’s story, the director expands its point of view by giving more authority to the female experience Conrad suppresses in his text. This is no slight against Conrad’s story, which derives its urgency from its uniquely artistic structure: a third-person narrative told as if it were in the first. By staying inside Alvan Hervey’s head, Conrad is able to rigidly convey the man’s belief that the world revolves around him and his ideals. Conrad writes, “Under the cover of that sacred and poetical fiction he desired her masterfully, for various reasons; but principally for the satisfaction of having his own way.” His trophy wife seems to exist only in the periphery of Alvan’s mind and the corners of Conrad’s story, something a generous Chéreau corrects. The change in titles speaks wonders about the director’s chivalry: The Return focuses on the act the woman commits while Gabrielle simply focuses on the woman.
One wonders if Chéreau’s commitment to instilling the story with a shifting, equal-opportunity point of view had something to do with Huppert. I mean, when you work with an actress as eminent as Huppert, it’s probably impossible to relegate her completely to the sidelines. No matter. There’s a stunning metronomic quality to the cutting back and forth between scenes that individually chart Gabrielle and Jean’s internal dilemmas. Where Greggory evokes the feeling of a man who loves to talk and hear himself doing so, like an engine that refuses to halt, Huppert conveys the idea of a woman not used to speaking aloud. In a great scene Gabrielle shares with one of her maids, she says how awful it is to have to eat with someone who isn’t hungry. This one simple, poetic pronouncement hauntingly encapsulates the entire state of her ghostly marriage with Jean—and she says it with the uncertainty of a woman whose heard herself speak for the very first time.
Hunger is one of Gabrielle’s many subjects. So are the membranous tubes of the human body: In one scene, Jean talks about once being attracted to a vein on Gabrielle’s head and later states how his own capillaries refuse to reveal themselves beneath his white skin. This fixation with the body and the blood that flows through it echoes many of the ideas that vibrantly and passionately course throughout the transcendent Son Frère. This interest in the human body reflects his characters’ perception of their physical and emotional needs, an idea that is similarly embodied by the film’s fabulously cavernous interiors, with are alternately robust and bloodless, evoking a sense of the human body rejecting itself. This is why Jean and Gabrielle’s failed sex scene is so devastating yet brilliantly absurd: it’s like watching two people trying to put a dead thing on life support.
Chéreau makes the interesting decision to shoot Gabrielle both in black and white and color. The back and forth between the varying stocks provides the film with added weight and rhythm, as if the black and white were a mirror of Jean’s self-satisfaction and the color a disintegration of that complacency. But the meter of this aesthetic pendulum becomes increasingly unhinged as the film moves along and the switching on and off of color seems to make less and less sense. This offness is a shame given the operatic vitality of the film’s score and the way Chéreau chooses to sometimes express Jean and Gabrielle’s internal thoughts via on-screen text. In this way, Gabrielle is a grand experiment whose grand gestures often fall flat.
But the real excitement here is watching Jean and Gabrielle unravel in startlingly different ways—he explodes, she implodes. This makes sense given both the social mores of the time and the personal roles they’ve written for themselves. Jean lives to exert control over others (Conrad calls it his “mastery over animals and over needy men”), but when he realizes that he apparently couldn’t tame his wife, he naturally self-destructs. For Gabrielle, cocooning herself within her frustration seems sadly natural for a woman who decided long ago to live a life without love and intimacy. The voltage of their individual defense mechanisms may be different, but both are powered by a very human, emphatic fear of the unknown and comfort for that which is familiar. Theirs is a truly symbiotic relationship—a dependence echoed not only by the symmetrical rhythms of Chéreau’s aesthetic but also by the story’s very structure, which begins with Gabrielle leaving and ends with Jean doing the same. Except he walks instead of taking the train.