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Patrice Chereau's twin careers as legit and movie director bisect to often memorable effect in a stylized costume drama examination of a suddenly imploded marriage. Chereau's name, and that of Isabelle Huppert as the bruised wife, will give this some profile at fests, but talky, rigorous, film will face tough sledding on the arthouse circuit.

With: Isabelle Huppert, Pascal Greggory, Raina Kabaivanska, Claudia Coli, Thierry Haneisse, Chantal Neuwirth, Thierry Fortineau, Louise Vincent, Clement Hervieu-Leger, Nicolas Moreau, Rinaldo Rocco, Xavier Lafitte, Mai David, Jeanne Henry, Aude Leger. (French dialogue)

Patrice Chereau’s twin careers as legit and movie director bisect to often memorable, though not always comfortable, effect in costume drama “Gabrielle,” a stylized examination of a suddenly imploded marriage. Theatrical in its language and staging, but cinematic in its use of widescreen and visual effects, pic could be titled “Prelude and Seven Scenes from a Bust-Up.” Chereau’s name, and that of Isabelle Huppert as the bruised wife, will give this some profile at fests, but this talky, rigorous, sometimes chancy film will face tough sledding on the arthouse circuit. Pic split crix at its Venice preem.

Script by Chereau and Anne-Louise Trividic, who previously worked together on helmer’s “Intimacy” (2001) and “His Brother” (2003), is based on Joseph Conrad’s 40-page short story, written from the perspective of the husband and with only a handful of lines given to the wife. Chereau and Trividic have attempted to make the wife a full partner in the drama –and even named the film after her — cloning a complete human being from Conrad’s scraps of DNA.

Problem is that the gambit doesn’t quite work, despite poised playing by Huppert that, in many respects, is superior to Pascal Greggory’s as the husband. Where the husband’s dialogue feels well-rounded, the wife’s feels tentative — and doesn’t answer key questions like why she returns at the start and what she ever saw in the husband in the first place.

With Greggory playing a cold, arrogant control-freak, pic’s emotional center should be Huppert’s character. But there’s not enough to her to hold on to, let alone empathize with.

Starting in B&W, as well-off writer-politico Jean Hervey (Greggory) walks home for dinner and introduces himself in V.O., film dissolves into color for a lavish dinner party (intro’ed by the caption “last Thursday”) that functions as a kind of prelude. It’s Paris society just prior to WWI and, as the camera catches characters from the Herveys’ social circle, Jean tells the audience how much he admires his smart, socially gifted wife, Gabrielle (Huppert), and how well he knows her.

Well, obviously not that well. As the story proper begins, and Jean enters his home, still rhapsodizing about Gabrielle and their first meeting, he (and his pompous V.O.) are brought to a stop by the sight of a letter on a table. As Jean realizes it’s a Dear John, his whole demeanor falls to pieces.

Unlike the lensing of the Belle Epoque prelude — golds, reds, blacks, like Proust sprung to life — the colors for home life with the Herveys are cold and umbrous, closer to those for “Intimacy.” Then, out of the shadows, appears Gabrielle herself, like a grieving widow, and explains her leaving was “a mistake.” Jean, his pride partly restored, upbraids her for humiliating him, and generally treats her like an errant child, finishing with a condescending “I forgive you.”

Subsequent scenes are basically variations on that material, with Gabrielle sometimes dominating the drama — as in a long invented scene with her personal maid — and extra information occasionally dropped into the bubbling pot. Gabrielle’s revelation, halfway through the movie, of who her lover is throws Jean off balance, leading to her frank dissection of their marriage that leaves him metaphorically drawn and quartered.

Unlike in, say, Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” this is all done in a highly stylized way, with dialogue that’s consciously literary and very French-metaphysical. There’s much talk of control, loving or not loving, and so on.

Though it won’t appeal to everyone, the concoction actually works, thanks to Huppert and Greggory’s powerful negative chemistry. Add to that Eric Gautier’s suffused lighting and gliding widescreen camerawork that support the theatricality of the dialogue while reminding viewers (through occasional use of onscreen graphics and visual F/X) that they’re still watching a movie. Think of a late Visconti movie, like “Conversation Piece,” but with much more edge.

Even when the gab starts to pall, Chereau never lets the audience forget that, first and foremost, he is a master stager. A section near the end, as the housemaids carrying lamps through the dark corridors, to Fabio Vacchi’s doleful music, is like a symphonic interlude in a dark romantic opera, prepping the viewer for the final showdown.

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Production: A Mars Distribution (in France)/Mikado Film (in Italy) release of an Azor Films presentation of an Azor Films, Arte France Cinema, StudioCanal, Love Streams Prods. (France)/Albachiara Produzioni (Italy)/Networkmovie (Germany) production. (International sales: StudioCanal, Issy Les Moulineaux, France.) Produced by Joseph Strub, Serge Catoire, Ferdinanda Frangipane. Directed by Patrice Chereau. Screenplay, Chereau, Anne-Louise Trividic, based on the short story "The Return" by Joseph Conrad.

Crew: Camera (Fujicolor, Panavision widescreen), Eric Gautier; editor, Francois Gedigier; music, Fabio Vacchi; art director, Olivier Radot; costume designer, Caroline de Vivaise; hair, Fabienne Bressan, Campbell Young; make-up, Nguyen Thi-Thanh-Thu; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Guillaume Sciama, Benoit Hillebrant, Olivier Do Huu; assistant director, Antoine Garceau; casting, Pascale Beraud, Mirta Guaranaschelli. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival, Visions.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With: With: Isabelle Huppert, Pascal Greggory, Raina Kabaivanska, Claudia Coli, Thierry Haneisse, Chantal Neuwirth, Thierry Fortineau, Louise Vincent, Clement Hervieu-Leger, Nicolas Moreau, Rinaldo Rocco, Xavier Lafitte, Mai David, Jeanne Henry, Aude Leger. (French dialogue)

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