Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Louise Archambault
Stars: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Marie Gignac, Robert Charbelois.
This award winning French-Canadian film is a moving, uplifting story filled with a sense of hope and optimism. Gabrielle is a raw and emotionally touching tale of a young, mentally handicapped girl who just wants to find love and independence.
Gabrielle (played by newcomer Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) suffers from Williams syndrome, which is marked by cognitive underdevelopment and an overly gregarious nature, and she also has diabetes. At 22 she has spent most of her life in various homes where she is cared for, and all her needs are attended to. But when Gabrielle sings in the choir Les Muses de Montreal she seems to come to life. This a choir is composed of special needs performers and developmentally challenged singers and they are rehearsing for a special performance with Qubecois singer Robert Charbelois (playing himself), best known for his hit Ordinaire.
But she grows increasingly attracted towards Martin (Alexandre Landry), whom she meets at the recreation centre where she is part of the choir. The attraction between the pair is obvious and mutual, but when the issue of sex between them raises its head, Martin’s over protective mother Claire (Marie Gignac) steps in to try and keep them apart. Gabrielle’s sister Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, from Incendies, etc) is supportive and caring. But she is also about to head off to India to be with her fiance who is working with underprivileged kids in India, thus increasing Gabrielle’s own sense of isolation and loneliness. Gabrielle questions why she is able to follow her heart when she is not. Her plea for equality is quite touching and resonates strongly with audiences.
Gabrielle deals with themes of tolerance, independence, disability and acceptance. Gabrielle holds down a menial office job that has a solid routine and structure. But when she tries to test the limits of her independence, especially when she tries to live in Sophie’s apartment, she panic when small changes disrupt her routine and sense of calm.
Gabrielle has been directed with sensitivity and compassion by Louise Archambault (Familia, etc), and she eschews overt sentimentality for some surprisingly strong dramatic moments that ring of truthfulness. Her script is frank and doesn’t shy away from exploring the problems that Gabrielle faces on a daily basis. And her handling of Gabrielle’s awakening sexuality is also handled with compassion. And Mathieu Lavardiere uses handheld camera and natural lighting to good effect to give the material a natural and more intimate feel.
And there is a raw and powerful performance from Marion-Rivard, who herself suffers from Williams syndrome, giving an extra edge to her performance. Unlike many able-bodies actors who play mentally challenged characters and their mannered performance makes it is clear that they are acting, Marion-Rivard’s performance is painfully real and she elicits sympathy from the audience. Archambault closely collaborated with her star to develop the character and the story.
Archambault has cast astutely, and carefully integrates professional actors with special needs performers, which gives some scenes a sense of authenticity. Theatre actor Landry is also terrific as Martin, and he and Marion-Rivard share a palpable chemistry. Gignac is good as Martin’s mother but she is depicted as too much of a one-dimensional character.
There is also some great music here, which provides an emotional backdrop to the story. Music is strong, particularly during the climactic choir sequence, although I wish they had not provided subtitles for the Charlebois song; while the song itself sounds quite a catchy little tune, once you read the lyrics they are a load of nonsense.
This is a moving, warm, likeable and insightful drama and Gabrielle’s struggle for love and independence has the makings of a crowd pleasing drama.