It’s not often that I come away from a movie feeling mesmerized solely because of the way it evokes a bygone period of history, but Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle had that mysteriously exhilarating effect.

Based on a story by Joseph Conrad called “The Return,” Chéreau’s film concerns the sudden breakdown of a marriage, and I won’t claim that it struck me as a particularly novel or revelatory treatment of this rather Bergmanesque theme, despite the excellent work of leads Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory.

But the story takes place in Paris in the years before World War I, a milieu that has always fascinated me, and Chéreau and his collaborators manage to bring the era’s upper-class existence to visible, textural life as few moviemakers have.

Despite the movie’s derivation from Conrad, the spirit of Marcel Proust hovers about Gabrielle. And with that presence comes the regret that Joseph Losey’s long-planned, Harold Pinter-scripted film of A la reserche de temps perdu never made it to the screen. Of the Proust adaptations that have been mounted, the likes of Volker Schlöndorff’s Swann’s Way and Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained manage to be decent dramatically but rather lackluster cinematically. (My favorite Proust film, although it derives from the writer’s life rather than his work, remains Percy Adlon’s Celeste.)

A cinematic evocation of Proust’s Paris inevitably suggests painters of the period, and every reader will have his own candidates, ranging perhaps from Degas to Sargeant and Whistler. As it happens, Chéreau and his gifted cinematographer Eric Gautier studied the paintings of Henri Fantin-Latour, especially for their use of light sources like chandeliers.

The result, in Gabrielle, is a look in which the quality of light, its cool hues and softness, feels just right in both naturalistic verisimilitude and emotional expressiveness. With this visual basis established, Chéreau and Gautier intersperse black and white with color footage, which adds an additional level of formal complexity, while also adopting a shooting style that carefully blends hand-held sequences with more settled compositions in which, nevertheless, the camera angles are often subtly skewed.

Add in the complementary (and equally excellent) production design of Olivier Radot and costuming of Caroline de Vivaise, and you have an enveloping stylistic ambiance that’s elegant, allusive and insinuatingly chilly (though with flashes of warmth)–one might even say Proustian.

As in Proust, ironies of desire and fate twist on the barb of time. As the story opens, the well-to-do and supremely self-assured Jean Hervey (Greggory) arrives home early. Which is too bad: If he had been on time, he would have missed the event that shakes his world to its foundations.

Upstairs, there’s a note from his wife. It says she is leaving him for another man. “It may seem terrible and mad. It is terrible and right. Forgive me. Goodbye,” the letter concludes.

Jean is so stricken that he tries to have a drink but drops the decanter and cuts his hand on the shards. Here, the letter is reflected in a mirror, which in turn is “reflected” by the broken glass, while the image jumps from color to black and white and back again, everything combining to suggest fragmentation, shock, dissociation–all of this shows Chéreau’s understated stylistic arsenal at its most effective.

The unimaginable is followed by the unexpected. Gabrielle (Huppert) returns. To destroy the letter. Before Jean sees it. If only he had been on time. But now, of course, it is too late. Forever. The letter and its reading can never be erased.

He speaks to her in a furious, wounded, uncomprehending torrent, as if words could overwhelm and smother the reality. But the more he babbles, the more fatuous and foolhardy he sounds. When he offers to forgive her, she bursts out laughing.

The emotional background to this charged scene has been succinctly sketched in the mental musings of Jean as he returns home. The couple has been married for 10 years. Jean came to marriage relatively late in life; earlier, it held no interest. He was immediately taken with Gabrielle, though. She seemed the perfect addition, the perfect complement, to his already well-nigh perfect existence, like a porcelain figurine that completes the visual balance of a well-appointed room.

Early on, he insisted they sleep in the same bedroom, though in separate beds. There is no physical intimacy. He makes clear that he doesn’t need it–as if his needs were the only ones worth considering.

Every Thursday evening they have friends in, for dinner and the kind of gossipy conversation that goes well with postprandial drinks. As we witness one of these gatherings, brevity, perhaps, disallows the kind of minute social taxonomy that Proust delighted in; yet in terms of visual atmospherics, the film attains its most Proustian moments here, as the
Herveys entertain their languorous, well-heeled circle.

What we might sense in this crucial scene is that the Herveys’ marriage exists mainly to be displayed on Thursday nights. Jean evidently relishes playing the host, and wants nothing more than to hold forth each week in exactly the same manner, with Gabrielle luminous and poised and almost telepathic in her social skills at the other end of the table.

Even after reading that letter, he doesn’t understand that he’s not only the creator of every Thursday’s careful illusion of careless amity, but also its victim. For seven months she has been betraying him with one of the men in the room.

After the concise account of their married life that Chéreau gives us, it is not hard to see why Gabrielle would be betray Jean, and with a man her husband despises. The point is not just physical passion, but exacting a specific kind of revenge for its previous denial. And if this were all there was to it, the tale might suffocate in its obvious banality. But a question remains that ultimately invites us into a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics at work here: Given that we can easily discern why Gabrielle would leave Jean, why, after all, would she return?

It’s perhaps axiomatic that just as family is the core issue in most American films, for the French the central concern is marriage–and the French themselves no doubt would delimit that description to bourgeois marriage. There is no more prevalent or perennial topic in French movies. And even when French filmmakers offers us little in the way of truly novel or penetrating insights, they often amuse or impress with the passionate attention they devote to the subject.

Though Chéreau has directed 10 films (my favorite being his extravagant Queen Margot), he is better known in France as a director of theater and opera. That emphasis explains certain things about Gabrielle, a film longer on stylistic conviction than on thematic penetration.

The Conrad story is too slight, too anecdotal, to make for a fully rounded, feature film treatment of its intricate subject. Yet it gives the director a fine libretto for his operatic exploration of passion’s collateral damage. The film Gabrielle most recalls is Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and behind both Bergman and Chéreau, of course, stands August Strindberg. But where Bergman seems to absorb and even outdo his theatrical model, Chéreau uses the inspiration mainly as a springboard for performance–both his own with the camera and those of his main actors in front of it.

Greggory, whose chiseled face matches Jean’s hauteur, and Huppert, French cinema’s finest contemporary actor, give performances that easily justify the pretext handed them. Admittedly, there are moments in the film’s final section where even Chéreau gives in to the recent French confusion between “acting” and “acting out.” But for much of the film we behold a lavish, forensic, emotional precision that is indeed almost Proustian. It’s a feat very much worth witnessing.

Gabrielle opens Friday in select theaters.