“Gabrielle,” written and directed by Louise Archambault is the wholly, or perhaps it should be holy, sincere portrait of a young woman, Gabrielle, with Williams syndrome. Williams Syndrome has many characteristics, among which are distinct physical traits and deceptively higher verbal and social skills than the cognitive and mental functions associated with the disease would lead one to assume. Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Gabrielle, comes at her role organically as she has the syndrome and its myriad physical characteristics with musical talent added to her good verbal and social skills.
Gabrielle is a member of Les Muses de Montréal, a choral group comprised of intellectually challenged adults who are training to participate in an important music festival where they will accompany Robert Charlebois, a famous French Canadian singer and composer. There is a bonding and affection among all the handicapped adults and their teachers but between Gabrielle and fellow singer Martin, the gifted Alexandre Landry who thoroughly immersed himself in researching the role, love has begun to bloom. Handicapped they may be, but they experience the same hormonal urges and emotional highs and lows as you and me and this is where it gets tricky. Gabrielle has a very supportive sister who would like to help her in her desire to be more independent. Gabrielle’s sister Sophie, a lovely Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, understands her physical needs and encourages her to show more responsibility. Gabrielle’s cognitive gaps and fuzzy logic leave her longing to be treated like an adult and unable to resist impulses that run counter to her best intensions.
It is the discovery of the love between Gabrielle and Martin that leads to their greatest difficulties for while Sophie and the teachers guiding Gabrielle and Martin are encouraging of their desire to have a normal romantic relationship, it is Martin’s mother, played by Marie Gignac, who, horrified, immediately removes her son from any contact with Gabrielle. She is totally unwilling to risk a second generation of impaired children and completely unprepared to deal with her adult son’s sexuality. Both Martin and Gabrielle suffer greatly and, like Romeo and Juliette, plot to overcome the odds to their coupling.
To criticize the gushing sincerity of this film is akin to kicking a puppy, but kick I must. The acting is uniformly good and it is easy to see why Canada submitted this film as its entry to the 2013 Oscars as films about the mentally challenged are second only to films about the Holocaust when it comes to awards. Archambault’s film makes a strong statement about the need to look at her characters as individuals and not as a sum total of their handicapping conditions. It is a shame that she chose to simplify the tasks entailed in working with such challenging individuals. Here the teachers are saints and the members of the choir, representing a panoply of syndromes and difficulties, never act out or present any problems other than refusing to sit or stand when asked politely.
The film, weighing in at more than 100 minutes, often feels like watching grass grow because, despite the complexity of the underlying conflict, romantic love in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, is too slight to be sustained over that period of time. The premise of treating the mentally challenged, or anyone for that matter, with greater dignity and recognition of the depth of their emotions is a noble one but in this case it would have been better served as a 60 minute “POV” segment on PBS as there is never enough non-repetitive substance to justify the length.
Opening Friday July 4 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.