We are introduced right away to Jean, “an absolute fortress,” as his friends describe him, who possesses the “ease of contentment…[and] the cold stare of achievement,” as he says of himself in narration. The first fifteen minutes of the film are drenched in voice-over, words being a large part of the guise of propriety and complacency that he has built up around himself. Jean is sheltered by his punctilio.
But this façade is soon shattered, and a glass bottle is broken just to drive the point home, and his narration is interrupted mid-line. His wife, Gabrielle, has left him a Dear Jean letter and run off with another man. Devastated, even the film itself is unable to speak, briefly replacing spoken dialogue with printed titles. But then, only hours after she had left, Gabrielle returns.
Hitherto, Jean had seen his own stolidity and sexless contentment mirrored by his wife, but that was all a lie – he knows his wife as intimately as he does the servants (which is to say, not at all.) The externalities are removed from around the couple – the servants, the dinner guests, and even the dinner itself – leaving Jean emotionally naked to take a hard, honest, and disturbing look at himself. Gabrielle is an artfully-executed psychological study of a marriage’s dissolution.
Based on Jos. Conrad’s The Return, which Chéreau describes as, “an extraordinary dialogue between deaf people,” the film is about a man and a society nearly devoid of emotion. Jean remarks in reference to himself, “emotion is so revolting,” and he describes his friend as people who “fear emotion…more than fire, war, or fatal disease.” These are people who have applied layer upon layer of social veneer, reflected (yuk yuk) by the many mirrors that Chéreau uses to fill up his frames. The characters have not only two sides but three, maybe four.
Gabrielle is not meant to represent a strong, independent feminist-type, though she may be, but functions to expose Jean’s hollowness to himself. When much of the couples’ drama has been played out, they once again receive dinner guests, who are presented as fixed figures in a carefully arranged tableau. Jean, however, has been loosed from their formal rigidity, stumbling about manically disheveled. Gone is his previously stoic mien and his ability to fit in. In his effusiveness he glaringly sticks out from his contemporaries; the poor thing has been forced to feel a natural emotion.