Based on Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return,” this Belle Epoque chamber drama depicts an upper-class French couple whose marriage of convenience implodes in a single afternoon. The film becomes memorably intense once director Patrice Chéreau puts aside the flashy, distracting stylistic tics — once he gets out of the way of actors Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory as their characters start laying into each other, in other words.
Gabrielle and Jean married 10 years earlier not for love, but simply because they seemed to fit together, and it was the right time, the expected thing for both of them. Now Gabrielle, no longer a young woman, has experienced love and passion, really for the first time, with another man, and it’s devastating for her. A marriage based on appearances, and the decorous circumspection of anything like real emotion, is now unbearable to her. Faced with her blunt rejection, her husband Jean has to confront a damburst of emotion himself, something his entire life up until now — a life built around a smug enjoyment of acquisition — has left him unprepared for.
The movie at times suggests a more searing version of Martin Scorsese’s Edith Wharton adaptation, The Age of Innocence (1993), with Huppert’s Gabrielle the Newland Archer figure here. As their marriage shatters within the space of hours, Gabrielle calmly, icily delivers the death blow to Jean:
“The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable.”
Ouch. If you guessed that the marriage was kaputt after that, you guessed right. There’s no rejoinder to a line like that, especially not when it comes from Isabelle Huppert.