Even if you saw Isabelle Huppert's scarifying turn as a lovelorn psycho in 2001's ``The Piano Teacher," the prospect of spending an hour and a half trapped in an early 1900s Parisian townhouse with the great French actress might sound enticing. And Patrice Chereau's ``Gabrielle" gives Huppert and co-star Pascal Greggory room to swing all sorts of cats as an upper-class couple whose marriage detonates in their faces. The film is perversely hard going, though -- a drama whose brittle, fussy style remains at odds with both its sleek decor and agonized emotions.
``Emotions are revolting" admits Jean Hervey (Greggory), the betrayed husband on one side of the film's domestic power struggle. A coolly detached Belle Epoque businessman, he considers Gabrielle (Huppert), his wife of 10 years, to be his most prized possession. He even loves her after his fashion, that fashion not including physical intimacy or casual warmth. Thus Jean is floored one day to find a letter from Gabrielle telling him she has left him for another man. He's even more astounded when she returns home before the day is out, calmly reassuming her duties as mistress of the household. The mystery that comes to torment the husband is why she came back.
``Gabrielle" is based on Joseph Conrad's 1897 short story ``The Return ," a painstakingly interior psychological landscape that approaches the theater of Strindberg in its dissection of bourgeois romantic illusions. Jean is a prim master-of-the-universe prototype progressively undone by his wife's infidelity and, worse, her serene acceptance that she can live with him while loathing his very soul. The marriage is a sham, but the sham is necessary -- it's the linchpin that holds the husband's entire world together. ``Gabrielle" charts a discreet but nonetheless brutal wrestling match in which the stronger combatant slowly crumbles.
Unfortunately, Chereau (``Queen Margot ") serves it to us under glass. Eric Gautier's cinematography keeps switching back and forth from black-and-white to sumptuous color, the former apparently reflecting Jean's blinkered view of the world. Occasionally the soundtrack goes silent, the characters' dialogue moving to title cards for the duration. The atonal orchestral music by Fabio Vacchi abruptly crescendos and vanishes, as if Bela Bartok had been commissioned to write the score and handed in half the job.
The intent of all the Brechtian mucking about is to keep us from getting emotionally involved with these two cultured animals -- to see and apply their hypocrisies to our own lives. The effect only calls attention to the filmmaker's chilly artistic conceits. Ingmar Bergman's ``Scenes from a Marriage" was twice as devastating with none of the stylistic folderol.
Despite Claudia Coli's small role as a maid with uncertain loyalties and a few scenes among the couple's social set, ``Gabrielle" is what they call in the theater a two-hander, and the performances, when they're given room to breathe, are excellent. Greggory's bearing suggests the complacency of a man whose success has never been challenged, but his eyes -- seemingly on loan from Klaus Kinski -- reveal how fragile that complacency really is.
Huppert does something richer and eerier: She morphs from a woman battered by the emotions she has been taught to repress into an avenging angel of thwarted passion. If there's no room for love in this elegant hell, there will be no pretense otherwise and her husband will have to pay. The catch in ``Gabrielle" is that the audience pays as well.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org