A Chat With Patrice Chéreau…
Patrice Chéreau has had a celebrated career, spanning five decades winning numerous awards and garnering acclaim for his films including La Reine Margot (1994) and Intimacy (2001). His latest film GABRIELLE is a taut tale of marital discord set in turn of the century France. FilmExposed’s Saba Chaudry talks to Chéreau about making the film…
Despite never-ending media interviews, a polite and distinguished looking Patrice Chéreau remains refreshingly passionate when talking about Gabrielle. He explains he felt inspired to adapt Joseph Conrad’s story because of its natural suitability for the big screen, noting ‘there is something very cinematic in Conrad’s style and descriptions’. The main challenge was developing the roles of the two protagonists for cinema, in a largely two-character film. ‘We needed to write two parts, totally new almost. It wasn’t easy since we made the whole screenplay in three or four months’.
Particularly fascinating to Chéreau was the mystery surrounding the wife in Conrad’s original story. ‘She’s so incredibly enigmatic and interesting, we wanted to know ‘"Who is this woman?”’ Chéreau and screenplay writer Anne-Louise Trividic brought Gabrielle’s character to life using the particulars from Conrad’s text, and employing empathy to fill in the gaps. ‘We invented this character, we tried to understand who she could be focusing on the concrete things she does.’
Despite his impressive credentials in French theatre and opera, Chéreau is quick to dispel the notion that his theatrical background influenced the style of story-telling in Gabrielle. ‘There is no connection, I will tell you immediately… my background in theatre gave me only a good knowledge of actors... Theatre is a way of learning what it means to act. And what kind of strange animal actors are. I have the impression of having made real cinema with Gabrielle’ says Chéreau proudly. Gabrielle indeed makes use of cinema to startling effect, its inventive visual style often highlighting the hidden thoughts and fears of the protagonists.
The film is admirable for its uncompromising portrayal of human weakness. The whole spectrum of emotions felt by the protagonists – anger, confusion, jealousy, vulnerability, fatalism – are accurately captured in Chéreau’s brutally honest account. A noteworthy achievement of the film is that the contrasting viewpoints of Jean and Gabrielle are given equal weight. There is a sense of fairness and compassion in Chéreau’s complex portrayal. ‘I never wanted to choose between the two of them. I didn’t want to say “I like her” or “I like him” or “I dislike her”. No. I tried to be as faithful as possible.’
Chéreau’s much-praised recreation of turn of the century France establishes the social and cultural context for the story. ’I was interested in the frame. I was interested as a director to rebuild this time.’ However, Chéreau hopes the film’s aesthetic won’t act as a distraction from Gabrielle as a story of general human interest, in which the specifics of time and place are not important. As he explains, he was commenting on ‘something very general’. ‘I tried to be as universal as I could. I know that the costumes and everything sometimes hide that. But it has to do with how to co-habit, how to live with somebody… what happens when the love is gone, when the desire disappears. And that’s eternal, you know. The failure wasn’t about respectability or the rules of society, the failure was inside the marriage.’
Is Chéreau cynical about marriage? ‘I’m not cynical. I’m just sad when I see people, like these two people, failing something, or being wronged. I want just to be real. I know that relationships last a certain time, and then become another thing. Sometimes nothing, sometimes it stops; sometimes it carries on in a beautiful way. But I know that everything transforms.’
Loneliness, survival, and a fear of connecting meaningfully with others, are recurrent themes in Chéreau’s films. It’s a huge victory to show vulnerability. ‘Nobody wants that, particularly men’ Chéreau acknowledges. It seems that self-protection and ‘pretending to be strong when you are not’ may be the main motivation for Chéreau’s characters. The contrasting reactions of Jean and Gabrielle seem to indicate that men and women are essentially different in their emotional make-up, since Jean’s feelings overwhelm him, while Gabrielle’s response is much more controlled. Or, as Chéreau, more simply, puts it: ‘Women are stronger, usually. Men are very fragile!’