Repressed upper class males in costume dramas are traditionally treated as figures of fun, or arrogant bullies. The closed world in which they inhabit, invariably involving stately homes and a bevy of servants, is protected by convention and social mores. Public displays of emotion are considered common, in the way that a nervous breakdown is alluded to, if at all, as "under the weather".

The French are different, if Madame Bovary is anything to go by, and now Anne-Louise Trividic and Patrice Chereau (La Reine Margot, Intimacy) have adapted Joseph Conrad's short story, The Return, into one of the most emotionally taut, claustrophobic chamber pieces since Peter Brooks' Moderato Cantabile.

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Essentially a two-hander, it centres on Jean and Gabrielle Hervey (Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert), whose lives run as smoothly as a well-oiled clock, during the aspic years before the Great War. They give "interesting" and, therefore, popular dinner parties every other Thursday, in which "artistic types" mix with the best of Parisian high society. Their opulent town house is staffed with a small army of perfectly trained maids and cooks.

The story is narrated by Jean, a successful financier. Although a good looking man of impeccable manners, tall, elegant and self-possessed, he prefers to stay in the background at the parties, allowing his petite, poised and well connected wife to shine. Although styalised, like theatre, the behaviour of guests is a discipline learnt in the nursery, with the rules of bridge, the art of conversation and the mysteries of a musical instrument. Outsiders, such as the editor (Thierry Hancisse) of the radical newspaper Jean bought on a whim, are recognisable by their vulgarity and garrulous indiscretion.

When Jean returns to the house in the late afternoon one day, he finds a note on Gabrielle's dressing table, saying that she has left him for another man. As the shock begins to shake the foundations of his ordered mind, she comes back and they talk, as if for the first time, from positions of unbearable, scarcely understood, pain.

The performances of Greggory and Huppert are monumental. The acting alone would make this film an exceptional experience, but the use of light, the set dressings, Chereau's obsession with detail, the look and feel of the period, the effortless slippage from black-and-white to colour, the poison of betrayal ("Emotion is revolting," he tells her) and the cruelty of truth ("The thought of your sperm inside me is intolerable," she tells him), leaves an unforgettable imprint.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2006
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A marriage of convenience is exposed as an elegant charade when passion catches fire. Out to own on DVD from April 23.
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Director: Patrice Chéreau

Writer: Patrice Chéreau, Anne-Louise Trividic, Joseph Conrad

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Pascal Greggory, Claudia Coli, Thierry Hancisse, Chantal Neuwirth, Thierry Fortineau, Louise Vincent, Clément Hervieu-Léger, Nicolas Moreau, Rinaldo Rocco, Xavier Lafitte

Year: 2005

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany, France, Italy


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