Joseph Conrad is usually associated with psychological adventure-novels such as Heart of Darkness. The author also crafted short stories charged with an astonishingly modern sense of the darkness that can fill an untended heart. The French writer-director Patrice (Intimacy) Chereau has turned one such story, "The Return," into a shocking, brilliantly original rumination on the subject of marital rot.
The great Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert turn in some of the most powerful work of their long, distinguished careers in the roles of an upper-class Parisian couple circa 1912. After years trapped in a passionless marriage, they have come to reside in entirely separate worlds. Jean, the stuffy snob of a self-impressed husband, learns this the hard way when he arrives home and finds a letter from his wife waiting for him. He's stunned to discover she has left him. And he's even more stunned when she changes her mind and returns shortly thereafter. Talk about awkward moments. How much more compelling could a scene between a husband and wife possibly be?
Jean is a bore who fancies himself a member of high society, a thrower of intellectual soirees whose invitations are much coveted. John Cleese would be perfect in the role if this were a comedy. It's not.
Gabrielle is a woman who has spent 10 years making the most of life as a trophy wife. Conrad appears to have anticipated the term as he has the husband at one point remark with pride "I love her as a collector does his most prized item." She is outwardly beautiful, dutiful and composed to perfection. Inside, resentment and frustration have been festering for years and she is torn - not between lovers, or right and wrong, but between her desire to leave and find happiness and to stay and make Jean miserable.
She goes with the latter, and is merciless. Having wasted her youth on the man, she's determined to pay him back in psychic spades. Payback is a bitch on wheels.
The film is a wonder and a joy to watch on a number of levels. Cinematography doesn't get any more gorgeous than this. Eric Gautier is a master. Chereau employs jump cuts and inter-titles - devices you'd think wouldn't suit a period piece; they suit this one, and never prove distracting. He also switches back and forth between color and black and white to underscore emotional pivot points, the way another director might use a musical cue.
And, speaking of the score, my God - Fabio Vacchi has managed to write music that sounds exactly like pain. This might not help sales of the soundtrack CD, but it does wonders for the movie. The dialogue is a savage feast of precisely chosen unkind words. I watched the picture on a DVD screener and had to replay a particular scene three or four times. I just wasn't sure I really was seeing what I thought I was seeing: a corseted, turn-of-the-century wife looking her husband in the eye and informing him, "The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable."
Over the course of the picture, the couple's balance of power shifts completely. Jean deteriorates into a pleading, pathetic mess while Gabrielle reveals untapped reserves of fearlessness and ferocity. By the time the film reaches its climax - a knock-down, drag-out, break-up brawl in the middle of one of their soirees - she makes Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like June Cleaver.
This is the sort of subtitled, under-publicized small film that could easily slip under one's radar. That would be a shame for anyone who appreciates really brave, no-holds-barred, firing-on-all-pistons filmmaking. You'd have to go all the way back to Bergman to find scenes from a marriage as searing as these.