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Memories of "Gabrielle"

Posted at 4:27 PM on November 10, 2006 by Euan Kerr

I saw Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle" a little over a year ago at the Toronto Film Festival. There was a lot of excitement about the film in part because of Chereau's track record (he made the bloody "Queen Margot" and the brutally explicit "Intimacy.") The film also boasts the top-line talents of Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory. The film is based on a Joseph Conrad novella about an aristocratic man (Greggory) who returns home one day to find a note from his wife (Huppert) that she has left him.

The Toronto show was a star-studded event with both Chereau and Greggory flying in specially from France for the event. The film screened in a huge theater, with at least 2,000 seats and the place was packed.

Chereau introduced the film saying he had arrived less than an hour before and would be leaving shortly after the film to return to Paris where he was in the midst of directing an opera. The audience applauded his generosity and stamina in making the trip, then settled down to watch the film.

And this is where the division began. "Gabrielle" is beautifully staged, gorgeously shot, and passionately acted, particularly by Huppert. Yet as the film went on, people began to drift towards the exits. Others sat there rapt at the drama unfolding on the screen.

As I have mentioned before I believe someone's mood is far more important to enjoying a film, and this is particularly true if "Gabrielle." This is the kind of story which works well on stage in a black-box theater. It's cerebral and talky, with two characters desperately trying to come to grips with the other persons emotions, and then maybe their own.

But Chereau's direction comes from the opera, and he sweeps it across the large screen. It was clearly too expansive for many in the Toronto audiences. In reading about the film since, I've come across very few non-committal reactions. People either love it or hate it. (Huppert won the best actress award at the 2005 Lumieres, the French equivalent of the Golden Globes.)

An hour into the film, the friend who had suggested we get tickets turned to me and quietly apologized. He said that if we weren't in the middle of a very long and very full row, he'd suggest we just slip out.

We stayed though. As the credits rolled there was only a smattering of applause, and then we joined the throngs of people heading for the exit. A disembodied voice announced Chereau and Greggory would return for a question and answer session, but that did not stem the flow towards the door.

Having climbed down the huge flight of stairs to the front of the theater, my friend and I turned the corner to go down to the exit and walked right into the director and star. They both had sad half-smiles on their faces.

It is the single most powerful memory I have of that whole trip.

"Gabrielle" opens at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis this weekend.

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