Foreign Film Week: As a Collector Loves His Most Prized Item: ‘Gabrielle’ (2005)

Isabelle Huppert stars in Gabrielle
Guest post written by Amanda Civitello
Gabrielle is a beautifully complex film, the kind of movie that begs to be watched with attention. Starring the unparalleled Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory, who each deliver spellbinding performances, and based on the short story “The Return” by Joseph Conrad, Gabrielle tells the story of a well-to-do woman, the wife of a successful businessman in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris, who one afternoon makes up her mind to leave her husband, writes him a note to that effect, leaves – and then, three hours later, returns. It’s a film with disconcertingly ambiguous characters who alternately elicit frustration, antipathy, disgust, and sympathy from the audience. There isn’t really a heroine to this film, but neither is there an anti-hero; the strength of Gabrielle is in its rendering of utterly perplexing, thoroughly human characters. Patrice Chéreau could not have chosen a better pair of actors to anchor his film. Huppert and Greggory shine in roles that rely primarily on non-verbal acting, embodying their characters with achingly subtle realism. The film suffers from some stylistic problems – it’s sometimes difficult, for example, to know what Chéreau intends when the film switches abruptly from black and white to color – but is, ultimately, a beautifully shot and well-acted film whose complex, disquieting story is all the more harrowing couched as it is in such lovely photography.
We are introduced to our eponymous protagonist in Gabrielle‘s opening scenes: we meet her through the eyes of the antagonist: her husband Jean. We learn why he chose his wife – her impassivity being her chief attribute – and we observe her. We watch her across the dinner table as he watches her each evening; we appraise her as he does; we do all this without hearing her say a single word. She is objectified and we are as guilty of her objectification as her husband. Though he takes pride in his reserved stoicism, he nevertheless insists on having fallen in love with his wife. Later, however, he qualifies this: “I love her as a collector loves his most prized item. Once acquired, it becomes his sole reason to live.” But Gabrielle isn’t his reason to live, of course: he’s not motivated by love or desire for his wife, but rather by the desire to possess her. Having won her, he wants to keep her; it’s meaningful that the room which he enters after pronouncing these words is essentially a sculpture gallery: busts of beautiful women, perhaps won at auction, which Jean would certainly love to keep. Jean’s love, further, is lacking in intimacy, which is not to say that it’s lacking in sex. He deems his desire “assuaged” and that they “know each other enough,” but that he insists on their sharing a bedroom. He says this with a degree of pride in the fact that it’s he who wants to share a bedroom with his wife, but of course, it’s not out of love for her – it’s just another manifestation of his almost obsessive possessiveness. He goes so far as to equate the sharing of their bedroom with the sharing of a grave; he wants to keep his Gabrielle. 
Gabrielle, in these opening scenes, is very much an ice queen, for all that she’s a consummate hostess. We learn, however, that she does have interests outside of entertaining: Jean acquiesces to her desire to “give her individuality fair play,” and he finances her philanthropic efforts to fund a newspaper and goes along with her evening Salons. He’s pleased with his investment when the newspaper turns a profit, but, as before, his pride in her is possessiveness trussed up as love.
Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory)

But Gabrielle is not precisely a sainted, long-suffering martyr, and it’s revealed that she was as coolly calculated in her decision to marry Jean as he was in his. In a brilliant use of cinematic parallelism, Chéreau turns the tables of the opening scenes on Gabrielle, so that she is the one watching, instead of being watched. She observes her servants as hawkishly, as silently as her husband studied her over dinner. “You’re devoted,” she declares to the young women attending her before her bath, “but you don’t enter my life.” Jean might have said the same words about Gabrielle herself in the film’s opening scenes, and the viewer has the sense that while Gabrielle is addressing her maids, the faraway look to her expression and the listless monotone of her voice mean that she might very well be speaking about her husband.

So Gabrielle is a beautiful, fragile-looking woman, who decides to leave her husband for her lover and then, perplexingly, chooses to return. Perhaps she never meant to permanently leave: perhaps the idea of leaving, the act of stepping through the door and venturing just a bit before turning homewards, was enough. What matters, of course, is that she chose to return to her husband. Jean wants an explanation, but Gabrielle isn’t one to justify herself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a charged scene in which Jean confronts her angrily – then tells her, somewhat grudgingly, that she has his forgiveness. Gabrielle immediately bursts out laughing, and Jean is confused and enraged by her reaction. She laughs because she hasn’t apologized, perhaps because she doesn’t want his forgiveness and certainly because she doesn’t feel she needs it. He protests, his magnanimity patently insincere; her laughter grows more maniacal. Infuriated, he grabs a glass of water and tosses it in her face. Gabrielle blinks, silenced, and Huppert sinks ever so slightly back against the cushions, her expression regaining the impenetrable passivity from the film’s early scenes, this time laced with a practically tangible misery.
Perhaps some of her melancholy derives from those who try to convince her that her decision to leave and return was anything but her own. First Jean, who thinks she’s taken leave of her senses; then Yvonne, the maid, who argues that Gabrielle is not at fault because Jean had allowed a man into his home who didn’t “respect the rules.” Gabrielle is so sadly resigned to her fate in part because no one, not even her servants, accords her the recognition that she did something of her own will. We discover, over the course of her discussion with Yvonne, that she took up with her lover because he made her happy, at least for a time, and because she fell in love. The fact that she recognized the impetuosity of her choices and chose to return to her unhappy marriage doesn’t nullify her three hours of independence. But faced with such a dismissal of her feelings, it’s not surprising that the fight seems to leave her. In a further blow, she’s denied the recognition of her actions, the acknowledgement of her agency, by maid and husband alike.
At dinner, that evening, Jean expresses his determination to forget the incident entirely, but his generosity, his forgiveness, is passively aggressive, and when Gabrielle finally offers him some insight into her thinking, he’s angrily dismissive. Gabrielle explains that she suffered when he left her alone after their marriage, that she was disillusioned and disappointed by it. “And look at the new Gabrielle,” Jean says, dismissively. “It’s not much of an improvement.” Resolved, Gabrielle enlightens him as to the reason for her return: she knew that he would take her back. She anticipated his reaction – the anger, the insistence on forgetting the afternoon – and returned, safe in the knowledge that he would accept her back, that she would continue to live as the socially prominent wife of Jean Hervey because he would so fear the social ostracization that would ensue.
Gabrielle is a strong woman, of course; she does know her own mind and acts accordingly. She pursues the relationship with her lover (incidentally the editor of the Herveys’ newspaper) because of her own desires and passions. Can she be faulted for falling in love, and pursuing it? Pursuing it while married isn’t right, of course, and Gabrielle is clever enough to know that, but a female character, in a period piece, who does something simply because she wants to is refreshing. Gabrielle Hervey is an interesting character in a genre in which many female characters are simply quite bland. She’s a strong woman, then, but not an especially nice one.
At their Salon the following evening, Jean corners Gabrielle during a vocal recital, detailing how he will torment her with guilt until he feels that ‘his’ Gabrielle has returned, at which time he may or may not tell her that her suffering has ended. Unimpressed, Gabrielle retorts that she sees his appreciation of her suffering, and therefore, her mask of sadness will be the only face he sees, even when she is no longer miserable. The moment in which Jean tossed water in Gabrielle’s face seemed, at the time, to be entirely out of character is now revealed to be but the harbinger of further, more serious abuse to come.

Jean threatens Gabrielle

It all comes to a head after the Salon: as the party disbands, Gabrielle puts on her evening cape and makes as if to leave. Jean grabs her violently, demanding that she not go to him. But she wasn’t going to her lover, she declares: she was leaving alone. Finally, in the moments that follow, each of them sat on the floor opposite the other – with Jean having practically wrestled her there in the first place – we learn why Gabrielle decided to leave and return. It’s not as simple as banking on her husband’s good nature: “when you don’t matter,” she says, “you can come and go.” She was a woman trapped in a marriage in which she felt unseen; she was a nonentity. She left, we realize, not just out of passion, but out of desperation; she returns not out of love for her husband or remorse for her infidelity, but because her life with Jean is easier. She knows her role; she knows what he expects from her, and she knows what she expects from him, and chooses that. Her decisions have the air of deliberation and calculation about them; we have the sense that she, up until this point, believed as we did in Jean’s placidity.

Throughout the film, Huppert’s Gabrielle maintains her even tone of voice and her expression of sad resignation, conveying Gabrielle’s changing emotions with only the subtlest of changes in expression. But Jean is enraged by this, and the sight of Gabrielle’s lover at their Salon, and the knowledge of their lovemaking pushes him over the edge. [Trigger warning.] In a terrible moment, Jean rips away the bodice of Gabrielle’s dress and forces up her skirt, and rapes her against the stone staircase. With a final shout, Gabrielle runs away, her steps echoing loudly on the stone floors. Huppert and Greggory handle the moment very carefully: this is an utterly terrifying scene in an otherwise slow-paced film, and it has much to do with the sudden onslaught of emotion from the two leads.
He returns to the bedroom the next morning, seemingly broken, yet offering excuses and wondering, impossibly, if she still loves him. It’s to Greggory’s credit that Jean is believable in this moment. Practically in response, with an utterly tired expression, Gabrielle moves to the bed, reclines, and pulls her clothes away from her body. “Come,” she says. “Lie down. Perhaps if you did, I could…now.” Despite her words, there’s nothing at all desperate about her in these moments: she’s a woman in control, who meets Jean’s gaze challengingly, who bares herself because she chooses to, she who, we come to learn, had been reticent to make love with her husband; who takes control of her sexuality and leverages it. Finally, it’s Gabrielle who sets the tone, in an utter reversal of the movie’s early scenes. He sits beside her and his hand trembles on her breasts; he lies on top of her; she doesn’t respond in the slightest to his touch. He wrenches himself away, his face twisted with emotion, in stark contrast to Gabrielle’s mask of placidity. “You could, like this, without love?” he asks, stunned. “Yes,” Gabrielle replies, simply. It’s a scene that’s incredibly difficult to watch, thanks to Huppert’s commanding performance. While before we gazed at her across the dinner table, admiring her, studying her, objectifying her, now it’s Gabrielle who dares us to look by offering herself to Jean – and to the audience’s gaze. And this time, we look away.
In the end, in the film as in the story, it’s Jean who leaves, slamming the door of the great house behind him, never to return; does that mean that it’s Gabrielle who won? The melancholic resignation that pervades the film’s final scenes seems to suggest that there are no winners in a story like Gabrielle: there are no winners just as there are no heroes in a marriage that falls apart because of the failings of both husband and wife.


Amanda Civitello is a Chicago-based freelance writer and Northwestern grad with an interest in arts and literary criticism. She has recently written on Jacques Derrida and feminist philosopher Sarah Kofman for The Ellipses Project and has contributed reviews of Rebecca, Sleepy Hollow, and Downton Abbey to Bitch Flicks. You can find her online at