Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novella The Return, Patrice Chereau's relentless, brilliantly acted chamber drama Gabrielle transforms the accoutrements of the pledge-drive period piece—lavish soirées among the tony elite in elegant drawing rooms—into a landscape of unstinting psychological devastation. In Chereau's film (which starts Friday at Oak Street Cinema), a newspaper tycoon comes home in a black-and-white spell of smug entitlement. He finds that his wife, his most proudly displayed possession, has written him a letter stating that she has left him for another man. Upon reading the news, he shatters a glass and his hands run red: The world erupts into livid color. Shortly thereafter, she returns to fetch the letter—which she has decided not to send. With the sham of their contentment laid bare, who can wound whom the most deeply, and make it count?
If there's any problem with the script, adapted by Chereau and Anne-Louise Tridivic, it's that Conrad's omniscient narration translates awkwardly into the husband's first-person inner thoughts; it gives him a self-awareness he shouldn't possess. But that's the one literary vestige in a furiously cinematic adaptation: This is Masterpiece Theatre red in tooth and claw. The husband is played by Pascal Greggory, who embodies what Conrad called a "slight tinge of overbearing brutality [given by] easy mastery over animals and over needy men," and the wife is Isabelle Huppert at her most ruthlessly sphinxlike. Pursuing their psychic warfare from drawing room to dining room to bedroom, Eric Gautier's insistent camera leaves nowhere to hide, and intertitles scream the thoughts the characters cannot whisper. Under Chereau's fearsome scrutiny, every gesture hurts; a hurled glass of water registers as one of the movie year's most shocking acts of violence. Anyone who has undergone a one-sided breakup will feel the hit as well as the throw—which aptly describes the film.