Emmanuelle Devos as Elisa, a pre-feminist fictional protagonist singled out by Simone de Beauvoir as an example of a woman completely under the sway of her husband.
A Face Transparent and Opaque
Frédéric Fonteyne brings us a pre-feminist heroine who wont let us in
By STEVE ERICKSON
Set in 1930s France and based on a novel by Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Gilles Wife isnt just a period piece. It feels like it was made in the past. Granted, there are a few modern touchesnearly abstract images under the opening credits, a sex scene in the first five minutes. However, its title heroine is a rather old-fashioned, pre-feminist characterwoman as an inscrutable yet powerful enigma.
In fact, Simone de Beauvoir singled out Bourdouxhes protagonist in her book The Second Sex as an example of a woman completely under the sway of her husband. This notion seems to be shared by both the film and its characters. The French title translates literally as the woman of Gilles, alluding ambiguously to his infidelity, but making clear that her husband views her as a possession. She does have a nameElisabut its rarely spoken.
Gilles Wife takes place in a small mining town. Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos) is happily married to Gilles (Clovis Cornillac). The couple has two children, and Elisa is once again pregnant. Her sister Victorine (Laura Smet) often comes to see the children and help out with household chores.
Elisas contentment is broken when she starts to suspect that Gilles is cheating on her. She discovers that hes having an affair with Victorine and tries to win back his affection.
Fonteyne and cinematographer Virginie Saint-Martin are talented enough to come up with plenty of striking images. Gilles Wife is filled with close-ups of Devos face, yet it punctuates them with long shots. Theyre very carefully framed and lit. The lighting isnt quite realistic, yet its not stylized enough to look outrageously artificial. In one shot, the camera lingers on the landing as she walks down a flight of stairs, baby in hand; in another, Gilles and Elisas house is shown from a distance, with a person barely visible in the kitchen. The scenes in the garden are particularly attractive, suggesting that its Elisas refuge from Gilles.
Film Comment magazine used to run a list of the moments out of time from the years films; Gilles Wife is designed as a string of them. Taken individually, theyre impressive, but theres little cumulative effect. They dont reveal much about Elisas character; their distance is implicit in the entire film. Fonteyne seems inspired by painting, especially Vermeer, but he doesnt use it as a spur for cinema. Gilles Wife, which is filled with stationary shots, is too stately and sober for its own good. Its beautiful in the least imaginative ways possible.
The influence of literature also hangs heavily over Gilles Wife. Although Bourdouxhes novel used flashbacks, Fonteyne avoids them. He also eschews voice-over. Elisas a remarkably quiet character, and her story is played out almost entirely in Devos facial expressions and body language. At first, its difficult to tell whether shes passive or passive-aggressive.
On the surface, Gilles Wife seems like the kind of middlebrow literary adaptation that often attracts American distributors, but its too austere to be a crowd pleaser. A few recent French period pieces have shown how much life the form can still contain. Patrice Chéreaus Gabrielle, which will be released next year, brings imaginative direction and an operatic flair for melodrama to the genre. Arnaud Desplechins 2000 Esther Kahn created an unforgettable character, embodied in a strange performance by Summer Phoenix; its hard to tell whether Kahn ends and Phoenix begins. If the past is a foreign country, Esther is unique enough to be a nation of one.
Gilles Wife feels like a synthesis of 50s French Tradition of Quality cinema and Rainer Werner Fassbinders 70s films about marital discord. As good as Devos is, she cant quite carry the film, especially since Cornillac has little to offer except good looks; he certainly doesnt pull off Gilles wild mood swings. The film avoids psychologizing its characters, but it fails to offer any alternate means of understanding them. Its dramatic momentum gets lost amidst a plethora of gorgeous but empty compositions. Theres a great amount of craft at work in Gilles Wife, but it never makes a satisfying whole.