Based on Joseph Conrad's story "The Return," Patrice Chéreau's perfectly realized chamber drama Gabrielle takes place in immaculate turn-of-the-century drawing rooms where the walls seem to be closing in like a noose. For 10 years, the glacial marriage between stiff-lipped Pascal Greggory and his suffocating wife Isabelle Huppert has inched forward with chilly resolve, everyone assuming that inertia would carry it for several more decades to come. In the husband's mind, notions like happiness and passion were never as important as keeping up appearances. As host to an ever-expanding circle of acquaintances at their regular society parties, he put his marriage on display like it was part of the décor, and his wife always impressed as an object of sophistication and beauty. One of the film's savage ironies is that his wife's inevitable betrayal strikes less at his heart than at his all-consuming sense of order. How is their collapsing marriage going to look? And if he "forgives" his wife for her transgression, can they just agree to pretend it never happened?
A man for whom emotion seems a form of vulgarity, Greggory shows signs of cracking when he comes home to a "Dear John" letter from Huppert, who confesses to having an affair. Unexpectedly, she returns home that evening, and the animosities that had been so well-contained over the years come bubbling to the surface. As the two sort through the pieces of their broken union, they fight to leverage an advantage by attacking each other in vulnerable spots, inevitably exposing their rancor in front of prying housemaids and guests.
So begins a bravura exercise in shifting power dynamics, punctuated by bold stylistic touches such as jolting cuts from color to black-and-white, dramatic swells in the classical score, and screen-spanning intertitles that serve as exclamation points to several key scenes. In Chéreau's hands, Gabrielle has an operatic quality that throws the repressive environment into sharp relief; the film works like a pressure cooker, seething with bottled passions that intermittently burst through with startling cruelty and violence. It before never seemed possible for any actor to out-ice Huppert, but Greggory does his level best; together, they expose the rot that can eat away at an untended marriage, even one that seems placid on the surface.