Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return” (written in 1897 but not published until 1923) is a domestic-bourgeois detonation that finds the author far from his exotic stomping grounds. But for Conrad, an outsider in London, there were surely few settings more alien than English high society; accordingly, this relatively unsung, somewhat Jamesian piece unfolds with the simultaneous vividness and detachment of an out-of-body hallucination. Patrice Chéreau’s adaptation—relocated to turn-of-the-century Paris and retitled Gabrielle—is as compact and precise as the Conrad original, and a stunning reinvention of the period chamber drama.
The film opens, in black-and-white, with the scintillating promise of a Lumiére documentary. A train pulls into a station, a crowd alights, and we home in one man. His stride is confident, his voiceover imperious and dreamily self-satisfied: Jean (Pascal Greggory), a successful publisher, is acutely aware of and deeply pleased with his high social standing, fine taste, and abundant material possessions, among which he seems to include his wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). But in a single afternoon, during which Gabrielle leaves him for another man then abruptly reverses her decision, everything that Jean believes he knows about his marriage and his life falls apart.
It begins with a letter—a propulsively described passage in the story and an explosive one in the movie. When Jean spies the fateful missive, Chéreau illustrates the initial jolt as a pulse-quickening blur of confusion, irritation, and dread, in a roomful of mirrors and with a battery of words on the screen. Chéreau deploys intertitles throughout—a curious affectation that confers a spectral, antique quality on the proceedings but also has a perversely bracing, almost Pop Art effect. When it comes to this assaultive letter (an “absurd and distracting tumult seemed to ooze out of the written words,” per Conrad) and the head-spinning three-word sentence that ends the story, the assertive bursts of text land emotional blows that filmed action alone somehow would not.
Since 1999’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (his first collaboration with the great cinematographer Eric Gautier), Chéreau has emerged as a daredevil stylist. His movies reach for an operatic pitch and are often characterized by a wild abandon and hectic physicality. (Conrad himself called “The Return” a collection of “physical impressions: impressions of sound and sight.”) As befits a microscopic study of a relationship that shifts moment to moment, Gabrielle crackles with electric urgency. Chéreau keeps things off-balance by switching, sometimes for no discernible reason, between color and black-and-white; Gautier’s fleet, responsive camerawork here constitutes a master class in lighting and shooting faces and interiors in CinemaScope.
The main challenge confronting Chéreau is how to dramatize an epiphany, especially one as complex and unpredictable as Jean experiences. That he succeeds is testament to his phenomenal leads, who deliver easily two of the year’s best performances, as psychologically intricate as they are palpably intense. Like “The Return,” Gabrielle monitors the husband’s minutely shaded reaction to his wife’s outbreak of passion—from bafflement and humiliation to a terrified comprehension. Conrad, however, left the wife a nameless cipher—she first appears (in both story and movie) behind a veil. Having given her a name, titled his film for her, and enlisted the fearless Huppert to embody her, Chéreau obviously intends to redress the balance. In this domestic battle, played out amid silently bustling servants and stiffly poised dinner guests, the wife’s reproachful, wounding silences cut deeper than the husband’s stunned, wounded outbursts. The contorted recriminations build to an astonishing scene in which Jean storms into Gabrielle’s bedroom and mounts her, in a ridiculous, mortifying attempt to resuscitate their moribund marriage.
Almost the entire film unfolds within the unhappy couple’s home, an ornate, sumptuously upholstered expanse lit to suggest a mausoleum. Gabrielle makes apparent what was quietly ominous in Conrad’s story—that the unfaithful wife’s return is a sort of haunting. At once robust and ethereal, this is an existential ghost story, with fresh blood pulsing through its veins.