If you view marriage as a rotting cesspool of false fronts and emotional deception, then director Patrice Chéreau's latest effort could be your feel-good movie of the year. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short story The Return, this is the kind of crushing, emotionally draining anti-romance you don't see in American cinema anymore. Hell, you don't really see it in European cinema anymore, except when Ingmar Bergman decides to shake off the cobwebs of self-imposed retirement and make a bitter little picture like last year's Saraband.
When Americans do attempt movies like these, they usually end up cynical and curdled, more like an audience endurance test than anything else. But with an actress as exquisitely understated as Isabelle Huppert in front of the camera, Chéreau is able to do what so many others can't: make a movie about the death of a relationship where you can still feel the undercurrents of love and desire or at least security.
The setting of Conrad's story has been modified slightly, to Paris of the early 1900s. The self-satisfied, cigar-chomping Jean (Pascal Greggory) leads a life of safe, bourgeois comfort with his porcelain wife Gabrielle (Huppert) or that's what he tells us in voice-over narration as he walks home from the train.
Early on, cracks in his facade begin to show: "I love her as a collector loves his most prized item," he says of his wife, which may explain why the couple sleeps in separate beds. When Jean arrives home on this particular day, however, he's blindsided by a letter from Gabrielle announcing that she's left him for another man; but before he can even make sense of his feelings, she returns, admitting she couldn't go through with it.
Thus begins one of the most toxic arguments you'll see this side of The O'Reilly Factor. "The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable," Gabrielle shouts after a prolonged verbal lashing from Jean. Although the dialogue is confined to the interiors of their mansion, their problems aren't kept inside they try to get their cooks and maids, who move with an almost mechanical precision, to take sides. At one point, they throw a dinner party as if nothing ever happened and invite Gabrielle's lover.
Chéreau and his co-writer, Anne-Louise Trividic, keep the movie short and sharp, like a concealed dagger. What begins as a polite, respectable art-house movie devolves into controlled chaos. Chéreau switches from black and white to color for the most painful moments of the argument, and he uses carefully placed freeze-frames and titles on the screen to punctuate the action.
For some, sitting through this might seem like punishment why pay to see two people fall apart when you can spend time with an old married couple? But the film has an undeniable force; it sucks you in, no matter how much you try to turn away. Anyone who remembers straining to listen to their parent's arguments as a child will no doubt be fascinated by Gabrielle.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17-18, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 19.