Directed by Louise Archambault
Though it may be Canada’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Academy Award, Louise Archambault’s Gabrielle is neither as good nor as bad as such a dubious honour makes it out to be. By which I mean that, while it’s certainly not the best film to come out of French Canada last year, neither is this drama about a young woman with developmental disabilities attempting to win herself greater autonomy anywhere near as shamelessly manipulative or ploddingly earnest as it might seem, given its Oscar-baiting, issue-laden premise. Gabrielle isn’t all that subtle or sophisticated, but it is pretty smart.
Perhaps its greatest strength is its star, Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who Archambault discovered at the Quebec performing arts school where much of the film is set, itself an interesting milieu that the film permits us to explore. Marion-Rivard has Williams syndrome, a genetic defect characterized by a combination of learning impairment and strong language and social skills. In portraying the film’s eponymous heroine, Marion-Rivard exudes a heightened sense of engagement with her surroundings and a fierce desire to communicate, through conversation, through singing, which she seems to excel at—she’s a key member of the school’s choir—and, most notably, through a capacity to express desire and offer physical affection. Central to the film’s conflict is Gabrielle’s interest in Martin (Alexandre Landry), a shy choir-mate who lives with his rather protective mother—unlike Gabrielle, who has her own room at the school. The two make an endearing couple, but any semblance of conventional romance between them is thwarted by largely well-intentioned family members and school staff, who openly debate the pros and cons of allowing Gabrielle and Martin what they consider to be their rightful independence, ie: the power to be alone together, to have sex, perhaps even to cohabitate.
While these complex issues are frontloaded in the narrative, Gabrielle is not didactic, per se. Having successfully integrated her cast and, in some cases, apparently drawn upon their own life experiences to flesh out their roles, Archambault constructs scenarios that allow her heroine’s struggle to play out through action, rather than commentary. A clandestine make-out session at a dance party, a solo excursion through the city and a somewhat disastrous day spent alone in her sister’s apartment all unfold in naturalistic sequences. Rather than use such sequences as cumulative scaffolding for a tidy resolution, Archambault ends the film with one last bit of mischief that just barely works in Gabrielle’s favour, which is a way of assuring us that her challenges are far from over.
Some of this feels more admirable than inventive or riveting, and much is fairly predictable—again, it’s the performances and the ample space that Archambault allows for those performances to blossom that elevates Gabrielle above the level of the prosaic feel-good film. There is also a climactic and protracted special appearance from Quebec’s superstar singer-songwriter Robert Charlebois. I suspect one would need to be a big fan to get excited about that bit.