Gabrielle: Locarno Review

Gabrielle - H - 2013
An occasionally blunt but well-acted love story.

French-Canadian director Louise Archambault's second fiction feature focuses on two disabled people who find love during choir practice.

A talented young singer with Williams syndrome simply falls in love in Gabrielle, the second fiction feature of French-Canadian filmmaker Louise Archambault. But despite the fact that the feelings are mutual, being with her object of affection isn’t that simple -- not in the least because the families of the lovebirds with developmental disorders are protective of their adult-age children to an extreme degree.

Gabrielle is at once a classical romance, in which outside forces keep two lovers apart, as well as the specific account of the hurdles two grown-up but disabled individuals in love must face. Despite a slightly grating tendency to resist any kind of subtlety, the honest and convincingly played central romance does finally linger. Delightful newcomer Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who actually has Williams syndrome and plays a semi-autobiographical role, is a natural and superb theater actor Alexandre Landry, who plays her lover, is equally beguiling.

Gabrielle premiered at Locarno, where it won the Piazza Grande Audience Award, which suggests it has some mainstream potential that production company micro_scope -- which also produced Archambault’s debut, Familia, as well as art house hits such as Monsieur Lazhar and Incendies -- could tap into. The film will have its North-American premiere as a Special Presentation at Toronto.

Spontaneous 22-year-old Gabrielle (Marion-Rivard) has Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder that makes people overly sociable, among other things, and is a diabetic, though she’s also blessed with an absolute pitch. She spends a lot of time with her older sister, Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), who hasn’t dared tell Gabrielle that she’s about to move to India to join her boyfriend (Sebastien Ricard) who works in a school there.

Gabrielle’s favorite pastime is choir practice at a Montreal community center for disabled people run by the kind Laurent (Benoit Gouin), and the group’s preparing to perform with the famous Quebec singer Robert Charlebois at a music festival (which’ll provide the film’s grand outdoors finale that Archambault doesn’t quite have the skills to handle).

The group’s lead male singer is the handsome, 25-year-old Martin (Landry) and Gabrielle and Martin are both clearly into each other, much to the consternation of especially Martin’s mother (Marie Gignac). In an impressively imagined scene, she outright dismisses any possibility of the couple, who are in their twenties, ever having sex or moving in together, suggesting parents of disabled children might be so used to protecting their offspring that they sometimes forget they are adults, too.

Archambault beautifully shows both the growing attachment of Gabrielle and Martin as well as the myriad problems they face. A scene in which Sophie and her and Gabrielle’s mom (Isabelle Vincent) discuss parental responsibility is especially insightful, suggesting there is no single right way to do anything and assigning blame is useless.

It’s a shame, then, that some elements are so blunt. The use of lyrics to convey plot points or emotions is so obsessive that the name of Sophie’s character seems to have been chosen just because it fits with the lyrics of a particular song. Charlebois’ signature tune, Ordinaire (“I’m just an ordinary guy”) similarly feels like a heavy-handed choice for a handicapped-singers choir. The fact almost all non-disabled, first-world citizens seem innate do-gooders who try to help those less fortunate also feels somewhat unrealistic.

Cinematographer Mathieu Laverdiere’s camera grows more restless where necessary, like when Gabrielle is lost, and Archambault shows good directorial instincts in a scene in which the two lovers kiss at a dance and the sound suddenly drops out entirely, reinforcing the sense they are entirely alone and in the moment.

The frankness with which the film shows Gabrielle and Martin’s physical attraction could also generate some debate, though even those who might consider it voyeuristic or exploitative will have to admit that the arguments in favor of the couple’s love affair are greatly aided by the entirely natural depiction of the duo’s attraction.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Production companies: micro_scope
Cast: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Alexandre Landry, Vincent-Guillaume Otis, Benoit Gouin, Sebastien Ricard, Isabelle Vincent, Marie Gignac, Veronique Beaudet
Writer-Director: Louise Archambault
Producers: Luc Dery, Kim McGraw, Claude Paiement
Director of photography: Mathieu Laverdiere
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette
Music: François Lafontaine
Costume designer: Sophie Lefebvre
Editor: Richard Comeau
Sales: eOne Films International
No rating, 102 minutes.