A romantic mind will always be drawn to an era he could not possibly have known: Europe between the Great Wars, America as it began its first free century, England when Dickens was its sole witness (upon me 1960s and 1970s Northern Europe has cast an everlasting spell). Even an acute nostalgist knows that his sentiments are mostly based on unhappy persons' yearning for a past they cannot have, thus arming themselves for a future they cannot bear, and yet he still yearns. He yearns for love and remembrance, sweetness and wonder, and the eternity of his wretched soul. He will watch movies and read books, and dream himself the hero who simply must triumph in the end. Life will continue to disappoint him mildly, but life is always disappointing to those who choose to dwell in the past. What he wants is to be transported to that period, to breathe its air and darken beneath its sunsets and know beforehand that it will be the most glorious years of his existence. Alas, such is not our fate. We are doomed to do quite the reverse and live as if our better days are always a step ahead. Which brings us to a work from one of the most romanticized of all periods.
We are amidst the Belle Époque, that generation of prosperity before an Austrian nobleman would die and Europe would bleed. Like all such times, the label will come in hindsight, as its proponents firmly believed that nothing could have been worse than the First World War – a notion that would prove to be hideously mistaken. Like all reminiscents, they predictably overlook the malaise and woe of the vast majority in order to celebrate the minority's advances; almost just as predictably, guilt prevents them from glorifying the very elite – statesmen, kings, and industrialist mega-moguls – because, well, no one should really have anything nice to say about people so privileged as rarely having to wear the same clothes twice. Their focus then shifts to the upper middle class, the moneyed bourgeois who have neither blue blood nor courtier manners. Many of this stratum were of humble provenance, and made their money the old-fashioned way: a lucky investment. Such is the case of Jean Hervey (a magnificent Pascal Greggory), who took a flyer on a "failing newspaper." It was "a horrible newspaper, with no opinions," and initially yielded nothing more than bromides and inoffensiveness. But without the slightest indication – at least not to its new owner – the newspaper reversed its fortune and made Jean a permanent member of the urbanized rich (Jean claims he has "an easy relationship" with money). We see nothing of the Jean the businessman, but we can expect him to resemble quite closely Jean the socialite, that is, stuffy, boring, and dapper, with the perpetual mild indignation that snobs seem naturally to exude. Every Thursday, then, and we begin our film on a Thursday, a couple of dozen guests – it would be too presumptuous to call them friends – gather at Jean's palatial residence for dinner, gossip, and a ritual without which their lives might be totally meaningless. Jean has plenty of almost robotic, identical female servants to do the heavy lifting, figuratively and literally, and gets away with practically saying and doing nothing at all. But the main reason he can permit himself such insouciance is his lovely wife Gabrielle (an even more magnificent Isabelle Huppert).
Gabrielle is one of the screen's most original creations, in no small part because she is perfectly comfortable in her existence and yet perfectly miserable. We do not immediately deduce the latter part of that equation, but an event barely twenty minutes into our film will make that agonizingly clear. At this first Thursday gathering, however, she is anything if not the genteel hostess. Her guests quack and croak in the pretentious tones of those who believe current events, strong drinks, and a bit of company lead to philosophical epiphanies. One quips idiotically, without precedence or conclusion, that he dreams of strangers falling in love; a fat woman states that she never repeats what a stranger tells her, but keeps it for herself – which implies that she repeats everything her friends and acquaintances tell her; Jean, who narrates our story, hums complacently to himself that he knows "Gabrielle's dreams" so "she could not be unfaithful"; an elderly spinster grins and announces that, "we have a set of things to do in life. When we finish, we collapse"; and another guest observes that "you don't have to know someone to enjoy his company," and we already understand that the whole film will come to be about knowledge, about whom we really know and whom we think we know, and those we think know us. All these comments drown out the loudmouth rants of an obese and dishevelled drunk who just so happens to be the editor-in-chief of Jean's newspaper. Our narrator informs us that he does not think much of this slob, but, being of the Philistine vanguard, is naturally prone to taking no action and hoping for the best. I spoil nothing by saying that on the Herveys' ten-year anniversary, Jean returns home, slinks up the stairs and through a series of rooms only to find a letter sitting on his wife's boudoir. It is very much a Dear Jean letter, and we know its contents even if we are given only a few gigantic words on screen. But before Jean can even decide how to react ("you did not accustom me to this, Gabrielle"), Gabrielle does what no one could have possibly thought she would: after an absence of barely three hours, she returns.
A tale of domestic deception is a dusty chestnut, and as such, the original story cannot be recommended because its intentions are hardly sincere. Not only is there nothing shocking about such indiscretions, they are rarely if ever imbued with any pathos. The paramount question would seem to be – as posed by Conrad's title, "The Return" – why Gabrielle comes back. Is she simply inured to her pointless existence? Does a part of her long for security and ease, things that her lover will not be able to provide her? But the smarter viewer knows that the question is a McGuffin best left to hopeless graduate students who deem existentialism a profound path; thankfully, Chéreau seems to know it as well. The victory of style in the cinematic Gabrielle is the transformation of a plain text that wishes itself dynamic and controversial into a dynamic and controversial stage piece that wishes itself plain. In the hands and mouths of lesser actors, we would have a soap opera whose dénouement could have been predicted somewhere around the ninth minute; but Huppert and Greggory do something extraordinary. They try as hard as they can to be run-of-the-mill citizens – Greggory the well-to-do dullard who never laughs, Huppert the delicately sturdy wife who never cries, both stock bourgeois roles – and yet they fail. Their savage efforts to be like everyone else lays bare the originality of their minds, most evident in the bizarre scenes between Gabrielle and her domestic, Yvonne, when sexual tension mingles with a misty sense of oneupmanship. When Jean the narrator tells us, and us alone, that Gabrielle is "not just any woman," we sense she will answer this thought aloud later in the film, and she most certainly does. When she waxes poetic about the suffering she endured in not leaving Jean for good ("my body, my arms, and my legs could not take it"), he accuses her of plagiarism because that is precisely how those without taste or artistic sense confront flashes of genius. It is no surprise then that Jean's line of sight is frequently screened by his large forelock, nor that the interchangeable female staff – who sometimes feel like a Greek chorus waiting to caption tragedy – seem much more alive than the guests. And those two moments in life when Gabrielle was happy? Let's just say they reveal more about her than any departure or return ever could.