email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on reddit pin on Pinterest

Anne-Louise Trividic • Gabrielle's scriptwriter

"I describe the difficulty of expressing feelings"

by 

Anne-Louise Trividic • Gabrielle's scriptwriter

Gabrielle [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
by Patrice Chereau, adapted from Joseph Conrad's short story "The Return", was an unforgettable moment in Venice's Biennale which earned Isabelle Huppert a lifetime achievement award. The screenwriter reveals her intimacy with apparently distant, unsympathetic characters.

La Gazette des Scénaristes: Who chose to adapt Joseph Conrad's "The Return"?
Anne-Louise Trividic: Patrice Chéreau read the text and wanted to work on it. He gave it to me to read and I liked it very much too. It is a descent into hell, full of horror and dizziness, into the psyche of a rather vain man.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

"The Return" was labelled "Conrad's worst text" by the general readership, a reputation which Conrad himself kindered. How do you feel about this?
Before everything else, it is a different kind of text. We are mostly familiar with his novels. This short story is rich with psychological and dark notations. It makes for a very beautiful text which doesn't vary from the rest of his works. It's true, though, that in general his writings rest on a wider dramatic bed. I would say that the difference lies in proportion, or in scale. Also, this text is before anything else the portrait of a man. It covers about twenty pages, but this capacity to shed a light on the human heart is clearly Conrad's. It's different, and it's not.

Do you make a difference between an original script and an adaptation?
No. The kind of work and the volume of work are the same. So are the questions you ask yourself. Moreover, a lot of the answers lie in the reasons why a director chooses to adapt a book. For instance, what was key in Chéreau's desire to adapt Philippe Besson's novel His Brother was a scene where the sick brother gets a shave on his hospital bed. Chéreau wanted to make the film for the sake of this sequence and around this sequence.

Conrad's text is basically composed of an interior monologue and an attempted, and failed, dialogue. How did you develop 90 minutes of film out of that?
As with any other story, the first thing you need to do is unfold the world map you want to look at through the text, try to cover all the bases, and narrow down the field of investigation step by step. Once I read the text, I wrote a first document of about thirty pages, which Chéreau calls my critical reading of the story. In this document I commented on the original text; browsed the possible openings, took notes of the doors I had rather kept closed and the characters I saw slowly sliding into other options. I took each element and drained it dry like an orange. That was the step where I gathered the main meaning of the major data and made the most of it and looked at what was left. I considered what aspects could be fascinating or risky, what would Patrice like among them. That was the time where the text lay flat and you would consider all the working hypotheses. From this first step arose the need of bringing the woman character up to the main level. In the short story, she only has a couple of lines; she is a means to bring out what the man feels. She is an abstract figure. We had to give her reality and work on a real couple where he and she would be equal. That was achieved through dialogue and endowing her with a special kind of energy. The story wasn't limited to the description of the soul of a man submitted to the harshest of investigations. We needed to focus on the relationship between two souls. We had to leave the observation and find the movement. She wasn't a character nailed down to a piece of paper like a butterfly. Our subject was the active meeting of two souls. That was our first step. The second step was to determine what we really wanted to say and make a list of the available means to achieve that. Which is a valid route for any story. When you consider adapting a text; the first step can be different, it really depends on what originally made you choose that text. Either you have, or you haven't, room to manoeuvre within the desire of your director. I believe that if you absolutely love a text, from A to Z, adaptation is a very risky option. Your love of the text can make you walk away from the right choices. Respect can make you censor yourself and lead you to miss the target. You feel you respect the text because you stayed close to it, whereas you've really stopped serving it. Also I don't think you adapt to serve. You adapt because a text brought something up, because it launched a movement.

In the short story, Alvan realizes what he thinks love means when his wife leaves him. How would you describe the evolution of Pascal Greggory's character?
The film keeps the original evolution. But the main movement is that he is forced to look within himself. The tragedy of adultery opens his eyes. Before the story starts, he is a man who doesn't have intimacy with himself. He walks through the surface of life. When he finds out his wife has been unfaithful to him, it sets him into movement, and that hurts, and he cannot get over it. In the script, the woman makes a full circle around herself, and this movement carries him along. All of a sudden, he is forced to look within himself. He isn't used to it, he doesn't want it and he even is somewhat disgusted by it. He probably isn't fully sincere with himself when he talks about it. When he clamours his love for her, it's really because the situation traditionally demands that of him. It would help him make things right, but does he really mean it? We're not sure. And so he leaves. He leaves because she reached something stronger and stranger which sends him away in an almost mechanical fashion. Opposite forces are at work in his house. It can't work. Until the end, he reacts in the way he is expected to. He is supposed to say love will be stronger, even if he cannot feel it. But his wife has moved to a different world, and he is a stranger there. What drives him away is not that she has a lover. He is driven away by the terror of looking at his own intimacy in the eye.

Why did you keep the original time where the story was set?
We didn't think of transposing the story into today for a second. The story would have been labelled "contemporary drama", and that would have been nefarious, it would have singled out the meaning. Keeping the original time and place allowed a distance and a style which would have been denied us had we tried to make it modern. Paradoxically, the past gives us a free hand – and also I think you do forget it fast and focus on the main purpose we were interested in : the facing of two souls, out of time.

How did you develop the woman's character, an anonymous ghost in the original text? Why did you name her Gabrielle?
I cannot remember how we came up with the name. Once we found it, it sounded right. We started working on her character in a simple, logical manner. We asked : who can this woman be ? Who is this person who left and came back? When you do that, what kind of a person are you, what happened to you, what do you think, how do you speak ? Then it all unfolded rather naturally. The tenderness and the harshness, the singular use of the language. She starts speaking as she probably never did before. She looks for metaphors to explain herself to him. Avoiding and beating about the bush are things of the past. She needs to express something crucial that happened and concerns them both. When she came back, she moved into a different world, and she is speaking from that world. She changed but she lets us see how she used to be. We needed to describe both tenses of her life in the same present. She was torn apart and now she settles down. We had to write in her inner conflict and all the intermediate steps. This works for him as well as her, but they asked different questions.

Do you believe Pascal Greggory's character was ever in love with her? Is he capable of loving? Yes. There used to be a form of love between them. Then she found out she had the need of a different form of love. As for him, he is capable of loving – according to what he thinks love is. But it all seems like it remains an abstract notion, not ever turning into a complex reality. He thinks he was in love, the same way you can think of yourself as being generous or impatient. It's a view of the mind that is still to be put to the test of reality.

How did you manage to write such cold feelings? What did you put in the dialogues and what was left out to directions?
Do you really think restraint in feelings is that rare? It shows up everywhere, anytime, in any shape and form. What matters is not the quality of being generous. What matters is how dialogues adapt to what the character lives, to his psychological chart. Once you have determined the characters, working on the dialogues is akin to a tailor working on a suit on a client's body. You need to adjust here, cut there, to make it fall perfectly, to make the client 'carry away' the suit. I believe that once you've accurately grasped a character, you hear his voice. That is why it is key to spend time dreaming about characters before starting to write. Sometimes, fascinating ideas come up that don't have much to do with the major challenges. And that only happens during this preliminary time, when rough masses are still floating.

Your characters in Intimacy, His Brother and Gabrielle oppose the norm and face prejudice. Is this a constant and conscient direction in your work?
It matters to oppose preconceived ideas as much as one can. I'm not really under the impression that I do it when I write. But obviously, although I don't think of it that way, this is a question around which my work is structured. It has to do with diverging, with moving aside of the norm and the commonly accepted, with rejecting what is expected of you. Let's say that it all has to do with a singular life, a life you choose, not one you're given. This implies a lot of effort from the characters, and a lot of vital energy too. These characters are not in peace, they work on their lives. And they don't give up.

Do you find writing sex scenes interesting ? Do they imply specific challenges?
I find it absolutely interesting, as I do any scene which plays a part in the storytelling. The so-called sex scene has no particular status in itself. It serves the story just like any other. It is just as fascinating, complex, crucial as other scenes if it needs to. It's the same job. All you need to do is decide on the scene's role in the story. I had never written sex scenes before Intimacy. When I wrote the first one, I had to overcome the feeling that I was telling a lot about myself. A rather absurd and stupid feeling, but I couldn't control it. So the hardest part was not to write the scenes, really, but to give them to others to read. And this embarrassment was probably shared by my director. As we went along, it completely disappeared.

Do you care about the effect these scenes have on the audience?
Yes, just as I do for other scenes. However, when we were writing Intimacy we were keen on starting the film by a love, or sex, scene. For a man and a woman, lovemaking is traditionnally a pinnacle, the point towards which everything in the story leads. Physical love is an end, not an element in a mass of data. Schematically, it is the end of many stories. To imagine it as a start is to give the film a different energy. We weren't interested in the dawn of love. We wanted to catch it in mid-air. Obviously, this creates a surprise, an effect, and we cared about that when we put together the opening scene.

Every single love scene in Intimacy is different from the next and indicates an evolution through very little words and delicate changes in the gestures. What was written, and what did you leave to the director?
Each sex scene was written in its most minute details. Time of the day, light, distance between the bodies, colour of the skin, weather, outside noises, subtext for the characters: everything was in the script. The original idea was that the man and the woman did not speak when they met to make love. That's what Patrice Chéreau and myself found interesting in Hanif Kureishi's short story. There is a challenge there which we found stimulating. Could we do it? Was it possible to tell the evolution in a relationship through silent embraces? We chose a limited mode of dialogue which you could call practical, rational.

How did you become a screenwriter?
I graduated in English and taught for five years. Then I stopped. I needed to move to another part of my life, though I didn't really know what shape that would take. There was the desire to write, but rather for the radio. Pascale Ferran (director of L'Age des Possibles) went to the Paris film school with my brother Pierre and thought of me for her first movie.

Anne-Louise Trividic - Filmography

Gabrielle
Director : Patrice Chéreau, 2005
Adapted from Joseph Conrad
Lifetime Achievement Award for Isabelle Huppert, Venice Film Festival

Son frère (His Brother)
Director : Patrice Chéreau, 2003
Adapted from Philippe Besson

Au plus près du paradis (Nearest to Heaven)
Director : Tonie Marshall, 2002

Intimité (Intimacy)
Director : Patrice Chéreau, 2001
Adapted from Hanif Kureishi

L'âge des possibles
Director : Pascale Ferran, 1995

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.