The fumblings of first love and the tentative steps we take toward independence can be tricky themes for a film, always at risk of being diminished into sentimentalism. Of course, the risks of mishandling the subject of disabled sexuality are even closer to hand. Give or a take a persistent current of paternalistic condescension and the occasional slip of exploitative sexualisation, there is a widespread preference for simply not talking about ‘it.’ Gabrielle deserves credit for doing so, and for the most part doing so with reasonable sensitivity. The film is the second feature by French-Canadian director Louise Archambault, and has garnered a significant amount of critical acclaim for its portrayal of the titular lead – including being chosen as the national submission to the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, although it didn’t end up nominated.
Gabrielle is a 22 year-old woman who has fallen in love for the first time and must navigate both her unfamiliar sexual desire and the suddenly acute want for independence. She lives in a special care share-home, and has a neurological condition (the condition is William’s syndrome, though its never explicated and receives little attention in itself, which is a smart decision from Archambault) that is shared by actress Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who takes the role in a semi-autobiographical capacity and executes it well. Her older sister Sophie, played with a satisfying vivacity by Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, is her both her closest friend and staunchest advocate, whose own romantic narrative is used as both a foil and complication when she decides to exercise a freedom unavailable to Gabrielle when she leaves to join her boyfriend in India. Gabrielle, on the other hand, finds her romantic aspirations toward Martin (Alexandre Landry) thwarted by both her circumstance, her carers, and most frustrating by his mother: she is brittle and abrasive, beady-eyed and pucker-mouthed as she guards her son and rejects the idea that everyone deserves to be loved with the inadvertently callous: “you know it’s not the same for people like them.”
The forbidden-love angle is kept company by a number of other classic young-love tropes that Archambault pulls out. The best of these is a disco scene, replete with the high-school dance aesthetics: soft focus, a dimness punctuated by the erratic swiveling of novelty lights, giddy dancing, and energetic pop music that becomes fully muted – rather heavy-handedly, actually – as Gabrielle and Martin depart the dancefloor to kiss and grope in a storage room while the camera semi-circles around them. The silence breaks within a minute, signaling unsubtly to the viewer that their kiss is about to be broken up too. The music in the film is largely determined by an internal logic, and extra-diegetic accompaniment is rare; however, for a film that largely forgoes an extra-diegetic soundtrack, Gabrielle is rather clumsy with its emphasis on sound. The disco scene is not the only point in the movie where all falls silent – no doubt the silence is meant to be a suspenseful, emotionally charged holding-of-the-breath, but it falls short and feels remarkably unsophisticated.
So, too, do a number of other aural choices. Though beautiful, the songs Gabrielle’s choir sings are almost plaintive in their lyrical obviousness, and a perfectly fine cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ is dragged down into thick literality when it plays over a scene which cuts from Gabrielle disembarking from a bus to Gabrielle sitting next to the window in a coffee shop, and looking pensively outwards – the lyrics being sung at this point, by the way, are “I am the passenger/I stay under glass/I look through my window so bright.”
What undoes Gabrielle the most, though, is the cinematography. A Huffington Post film critic described Gabrielle’s director of photography, Mathieu Laverdière, as having the potential to be “the best cinematographer in Quebec.” That critic was not, to be fair, specifically reviewing Gabrielle. The camera work seems to be almost entirely hand-held and there is almost no reprieve to the constant, dizzying movement, or to the unrelenting and often illogically short depth of field. We see a lot of the backs of necks in Gabrielle: Laverdière constantly approaches his subjects from behind or in half- or quarter-profile. Perhaps he and Archambault were reaching for something close to cinéma vérité, hoping to circumvent the pitfalls of overt stylisation in such a sensitive subject. Perhaps, with Marion-Rivard already leaving the door between reality and fiction slightly ajar, they assumed they could capitalise on the ambiguity. In fairness, there are definitely points in Gabrielle where its cinematography is fluid and intimate, as it was surely intended to be – yet sometimes these points are so brief that they pass back into giddy and unnecessary momentum before the scene has even played itself out.
The climax of the film, unsurprisingly, is a consummation, and one about which I remain ambivalent. It is one of the few scenes where the cinematography mainly works to involve, rather than accost, us, and its very inclusion is a refreshing and somewhat bold decision from Archambault. It is a sweet scene, again reminiscent of classic mainstream representations of awkward, gentle first times – there is a nebulous joy to the scene, courtesy of the actors, that justifies itself. Yet, with the gentle piano-score and the strong romantic emphasis scrubbing away most of the passion, the scene inches toward objectification. It is undeniably a thin line to walk, and perhaps Archambault is right to play it safe: I’d certainly rather watch an overly-syrupy, desexualised depiction of persons with a disability making love than watch an overly sexualised, exploitative or voyeuristic version. The starry-eyed, soft-focus, suitable-for-work sex of Gabrielle is just a little too close to the reproducing the condescending ideas of people with disabilities as being abnormally innocent, beautiful, pure souls – and it’s a shame, because overall, Gabrielle offers a strong alternative to the tired stereotypes of disability.