A self-possessed husband's pride in what he considers his perfect marriage is shattered when he arrives home one afternoon to find a letter from his wife, Gabrielle, announcing that she has left him for another man. The news has barely sunk in when she returns to tell him that she was unable to go through with it. Based on a short story by Joseph Conrad and set in the bourgeois society of turn-of-the-century Paris, Patrice Chéreau's beautifully written and stunningly visualized period drama evokes the stilted life of that era with masterful precision. But Chéreau's primary intent is to explore a marriage in upheaval, and he departs from Conrad's story in focusing on Gabrielle's emotional torment. Isabelle Huppert delivers an extraordinary performance as Gabrielle, illuminating in equal measure the silent fortitude of a woman resigned to a marriage without intimacy, despair deepened by years of repressed longing, and defiance in the face of her husband's contempt. Pascal Greggory matches Huppert's brilliance at every turn in his role as Jean, the husband whose gracious solicitude hides a repugnance for the physical and emotional engagement that true intimacy requires. It is no wonder that Gabrielle's confession of her affair unleashes a deluge of painful outbursts and accusations, bringing the marriage to its inexorable fate and the film to its terrible conclusion. Chéreau's intelligent and emotionally courageous examination of the disintegration of a marriage is an achievement that invites comparisons to Ingmar Bergman, whose own studies of marital discord are among cinema's classics.

The films of Isabelle Huppert will be featured in a PFA series this June; check the BAM/PFA website after April 13 for details.

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