GILLES’ WIFE is a movie so French that you must read the book on which it is based in French. I don’t know whether I could but I’m motivated to try, if I could afford to buy it. In the movie language is not a problem, partly because of sub-titles of course, but also because the dialogue is almost nonexistent. There are no long disquisitions on theory except in sensory visual terms.
This is a three-character drama (not counting the babies) and really the story of one person, the wife. It is her face that is stunningly eloquent. Otherwise this seamless, glowing, simple account of a woman whose sister sleeps with her husband -- throwing the man into possessive obsession and the wife into a series of wrenching internal decisions to try to wait out the affair -- has happened and been portrayed many times. Never so gorgeously.
The titles are stunning: in the steel plant where Gilles works molten metal is pouring so that against a sheet of flame and showers of sparks we see silhouettes and then one man’s face marked with fatigue and soot. Quietly, he walks home across a dawning country landscape and slides into bed, then into his wife, as one continuous series. Home/bed/wife, all the same thing. His life is a rhythm of hard dangerous work and then restoration. This bonded couple nuzzles, adjusts, and pleases each other in a deeply erotic way, quite unlike Hollywood face-gnawing and thrashing. We see no one nude, nor do we see female breasts. They sit at the little kitchen table across from each other, laughing with delight at the sight of their beloved.
Into the idyll comes the wife’s little sister, Victorine, growing up and ready to try out sex. When she sees a chance, she makes it clear to Gilles that she’s available. He is in no need of Viagra. I get the impression that such a man is not well-explored in today’s world. At least non-verbal and certainly not conscious, he is gripped by his own physiology. (He even looks like Bob Scriver as a young man, so you imagine the impact on me.) We never see Gilles and Victorine relate more intimately than while dancing. Gilles’ passion comes out in ownership, which he attributes to deflowering her, as opposed to marrying her.
These events are context for what happens within Elisa, the wife. She struggles to understand what she should do and resolves that the only way to keep Gilles is to take his side, to help him with his obsession, even spying on his behalf. This works until Gilles loses his temper and beats Victorine, who is now ready for marriage to someone else. Everyone holds Elisa responsible for this, though she had no way of predicting it. The same people have steadfastly refused to recognize the cheating, which Victorine now blames on Elisa, too virtuous to gloat over her sister’s bloodied face. In fact, she stops Gilles from inflicting worse damage.
These are the most color-coded costumes I’ve seen for a long time, though it’s subtle. Victorine wears poppy, flame, crimson. Elisa wears Madonna blue, sometimes a strong blue, other times fading out to cool celadon. By the end of the movie they are both ashen. Gilles remains dun, khaki.
It is the Thirties in France with shooting in the distance, but the kitchen stove purrs and crackles. Material objects fascinated me, esp. a little white bowl with a red polka dot band at the top and a slender thermos for a culture where coffee is taken in very strong but small amounts. Domesticity in this stone house extends from the billowing white sheets and duvet of the bed to the terra cotta walls and tile floors of the interior to the laundry always blowing on the line to the garden moving from flowers to frost-blackened skeletons. Seasons come and go -- the story cycle takes two years so that a pregnancy (which may be partly what makes Gilles vulnerable) is completed, the baby is born (no screams or blood) and by the end he is walking. Twin girls don’t age, but make it clear this is a family.
Against this is the frenzy of a carnival, a dance where things get out of hand, a cathedral so full of busy people that prayer is constantly distracted, a whole social context much bigger than home. We don’t see the molten steel again except as a plume of smoke in the distance. Two important scenes were left out because they impeded the intense focus: one of Elisa drifting numbly through the busy city and the other of Gilles coming out of the factory in a street full of exhausted men.
This movie is a poem, a distillation. Many of the imdb.com commenters didn’t catch on -- they saw it in their own modern terms, railing at Gilles for being a swine, a dummy, and considering him a narcissistic typical man as though he were today’s metrosexual, casually promiscuous and psychologically defensive. The original novelist, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, was eight years older than Bob Scriver and Belgian (the background of the family on the Scriver side). “Gilles’ Wife” was published in 1935, about the time Bob was becoming deeply involved with his first wife with much the same motivation and force as Gilles and equally disastrous results. I’m saying that I recognize this story in its own terms. It is not a feminist essay.
Many, including Roger Ebert, objected to the end of the movie both as an event and for what they considered “arty” camera work that up-ended the terms observed by the heroine until then: that she was patient, forgiving, understood her husband, was acting for the best, and so on -- even though she is eventually blamed by her mother, her sister, and the priest. Gilles doesn’t blame her, only himself, BUT he deserts her emotionally. By the time the flames have cooled, the bed has also cooled.
It’s not until a person watches the documentation of the creation of the movie that it becomes apparent how much this is a constructed art work, smooth as a shell only because it has been examined, argued, considered with huge seriousness and no restrictions except artistic ones. I was amazed to see that the “stone” house was a set. The little kitchen table that became a battleground seemed so real. But knowing that a poem is written doesn’t spoil one’s appreciation of it and this movie is a poem.