TIFF Review: 'Gabrielle'

(Canada, 104 min.)
Written and directed by Louise Archambault
Starring: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy Les Films Seville
What a joy Gabrielle is! Writer/director Louise Archambault (Familia) provides one of the most tender and touching romances this country has seen in years with the tale of young Gabrielle (played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) and her quest to love as freely as others do. Gabrielle is a twenty-five-year old woman with Williams syndrome living in a centre for developmentally challenged persons. Gabrielle acknowledges the lack of her independence for the first time when she realizes that the rules—and constant guardianship—of the centre act as a barrier to the love that is blossoming between her and one of her fellow choir members, Antoine (Alexandre Landry).

Gabrielle’s lone advocate in her quest for romance and personal independence is her sister, Sophie, played by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, who is just captivating here as she was in Incendies. Sophie does her best to convince the naysayers, namely Antoine’s mother, that Gabrielle and Antoine are fit to be together. Sophie also allows Gabrielle to explore the reality of living independently—buying one’s own groceries and cooking one’s own food, for example—so that she can learn through experience the big step she wants to make. Sophie is at a crossroads herself, as she also wants to be with the man she loves but needs the motivation to step outside her comfort zone and travel halfway around the world to close the distance that seems far more easily bridged than the gap keeping Gabrielle apart from Antoine.

Gabrielle brings a frankness and an honesty to the screen as Archambault provides a sweet love story and tale of finding one’s self-confidence through independence and sexual awakening. Archambault’s masterful direction and her delicate handling of the subject matter of Gabrielle affords a sensitive onscreen portrait of developmentally challenged persons, as she portrays Gabrielle’s struggle for independence without making the love story too twee or the subtext too preachy. The film also does justice to its subject by allowing much of the cast to be filled with actors who share the developmental challenges portrayed onscreen. The honesty of the film is refreshing as Archambault conveys the universal emotions within the story and allows the audience to inhabit the mindset and joie de vivre of its radiant character as she blossoms.

One particularly masterful scene in Gabrielle makes salient use of silence as Gabrielle and Antoine take the first step in maturing their relationship. Archambault cuts the sound that pulses in the nightclub in which the pair cozies up together and leaves an aural gap as Gabrielle and Antoine explore each other and express their love within the glowing composition by cinematographer Mathieu Laverdière. The silence makes the genuine emotion of the scene fully tangible and it lets one feel what Gabrielle senses in the moment: it’s love, pure and simple, and there’s no reason for them not to have it when everybody else can.

The use of silence is especially striking since much of Gabrielle’s power comes through the various musical numbers peppered throughout the film. Gabrielle’s other joy is singing and she and Antoine are members of a choir in the centre. The group avidly prepares for a climactic performance with Quebec crooner Robert Charlebois. As the music of the choir swells, a beautiful mix of voices that sounds both professional and non-professional, the charm and spirit of Gabrielle is infectious. It’s doubly touching how well the lyrics of the Charlebois ballad “Ordinaire” underscore the subtext of the film as Antoine and Gabrielle rehearse in between bouts of convincing their families that they are capable of enjoying the same freedom to love that they have.

Especially important in the honesty and endless charm of Gabrielle is the casting of Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who has Williams syndrome in real life, as the young woman at a crossroads. Marion-Rivard is compelling as Gabrielle finds herself in an emotional and mental flurry as she grasps the bond she shares with Antoine, as well as the limits for the realization of their relationship imposed on them by guardians who feel the two aren’t ready to handle a serious relationship.

Gabrielle, which had its world premiere at Locarno this summer, marks this year’s entry at the Toronto International Film Festival by Québécois producers Kim McCraw and Luc Déry, the team behind Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar, which are two of Canada’s three consecutive Oscar nominees. If the Pan-Canadian committee in charge of determining Canada’s Oscar nominee for 2013 has any good sense, they’ll realize that Gabrielle probably stands the best chance of taking Canada’s track record with the Academy to four years in a row. Gabrielle, far more in the vein of Monsieur Lazhar than Incendies, is an irresistibly heartwarming and soul-stirring story. A tear-jerker and unique musical of sorts, the film is a bona-fide crowd pleaser, yet it’s smart, substantial, and so impeccable crafted that it simply deserves to represent the best Francophone cinema that Canada has to offer. Gabrielle is easily the best Canadian film to screen at TIFF this year.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)