The demure heroine of Frédéric Fonteyne’s Gilles’ Wife
is every bit as loyal and self-effacing as the movie’s title implies. In a 1930s French industrial town, Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos) lives in connubial bliss with her steelworker hubby Gilles (Clovis Cornillac) and their twin daughters. A tireless super-housewife, Elisa cooks, cleans, sews, and retains enough energy to indulge Gilles’s robust sexual appetite, which includes morning fucks and ample groping. Their domestic paradise comes to an unexpected end with the revelation of Gilles’s infidelity, which throws Elisa into a spiral of self-doubt. Fearful that Gilles will ultimately leave her, Elisa permits him to carry on, thus establishing the extremely fine line between her role as forgiving saint and willing doormat.
Devos’s performance is an expert workshop of internalized emotions and silent forbearance. As in Kings and Queen, her character essentially sacrifices herself on the altar of male neurosis while somehow retaining her dignity throughout. Possessing an ungainly mouth and nose, Devos is nevertheless capable of registering the slightest shifts in emotion, particularly in the scenes involving Elisa’s slatternly sister Victorine (Laura Smet), whose attentions to her brother-in-law prove less than familial. Fonteyne’s previous film, An Affair of Love, was an all-talk sex drama that suavely gabbed its way through amorous uncertainty. In contrast, Gilles’ Wife is founded on ambiguous silences, moving from happiness to despair with tight-lipped apprehension. Devos could have been a consummate silent actress, as evidenced by the final scene. No longer certain of her role in her own family, Elisa drops the laundry, moves toward the door, and steps quietly out of life.