(16/11/06) – Starting with an audacious scene in black and white at a 1912 train station that evokes the just-discovered filmmaking techniques of that time, Gabrielle, the new film from Patrice Chéreau (Son frère/His Brother) follows the well-to-do Jean (Pascal Greggory) from the station to his Parisian home and then stays within the confines of its spacious chambers for the rest of its running time. The period drama premiered at the 2005 Venice Film Festival and is based on Joseph Conrad’s short story The Return, about the relationship — or rather, the absence of it — of Jean and his perfectly educated wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). She exposes their living together for what it really is; not by leaving Jean for another man, which she also does, but by deciding to return home for good on the very same day.

"We have no intimacy, but we don’t need it," says Jean in an early voice-over narration that is just one element of Chéreau’s delirious stylistic concoction that also includes the already mentioned occasional black-and-white photography and the use of title cards that sometimes show phrases uttered by the characters as if Gabrielle were a silent film. Jean’s assumption will be proved wrong both by the story itself and by Chéreau’s visual flair, which almost constantly stays on the characters’ skin, even if in the background the large empty space of their city residence continuously looms, a reminder of what their relationship is really based on: outer appearance and inner emptiness.

The couple’s well-attended dinner parties are the place where their being together finds its ostensible validation, so much that Jean insists that during on such dinner party they make a joint announcement of the state of their relationship just to clear up any possible misunderstandings. Despite Jean’s fuss over what other people will think of Gabrielle’s inappropriate behaviour, the true enigma of the story is the simple question "Why did Gabrielle come back?" The answer is much worse than anything Jean could have ever imagined and Chéreau’s theatrical direction of the actors slowly draws out the true identities from under the characters’ respective corset and dinner jacket as they battle for the survival of their union – both for very different reasons.

With so much going for it, including visual flair and expert direction of its actors, the film still falls short of being a masterpiece. For all its filmmaking bravura, Gabrielle, like its eponymous protagonist, never really transcends the confines of its period drama setting and the societal expectations that go with it. The feelings and emotions of this disillusioned married couple are too strongly rooted in their society and times to become truly universal and Chéreau’s stylistic tricks only reinforce this sense of period rather than underlining the timelessness of the couple’s struggle. Gabrielle, the woman, was a product of her time and Gabrielle the film does nothing to engage our own emotions and experiences in some kind of dialogue with the woman. All we can do is look at the artistry and marvel, but we are never really touched.

Boyd van Hoeij is the editor of European-films.net (see links). Gabrielle opens in the UK tomorrow, 17 November.