Canada’s entry for the Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, Gabrielle is the touching story of the title character (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard), a young woman with developmental disabilities who falls in love with Martin (Alexandre Landry), a singer in her choir. Unfortunately his mother doesn’t approve and pulls Martin from the group in an attempt to end their relationship. In return Gabrielle takes control of her life for the first time. This thought provoking French language film is a tender tearjerker, but undeniably soul-stirring. Marion-Rivard, in her debut performance, is riveting and lovable; a character you can’t help but root for.
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Sometimes less is more. Just ask director Louise Archambault whose film Gabrielle went through many changes before cameras rolled.
“The story was much bigger in the beginning,” says the Quebec-born filmmaker. “For a long time half of it was set in India. It was big. We almost asked for money for funding with that script. I wanted those Indian kids to come to Montreal and it was so complicated. It was very big for my second feature. My producers said, ‘Are you sure you want to do all this?’ So at some point I decided to cut it in half and focus on Gabriele and just have a little incursion to India.”
The result is an intimate film focused on the title character, a young woman with Williams syndrome who falls in love with Martin (Alexandre Landry), a singer in her recreation centre choir. When Martin’s mother expresses concern about the relationship, Gabrielle becomes determined to find happiness, independence and a relationship with her boyfriend despite the roadblocks and prejudices presented by her developmental disabilities.
Played by first timer Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, the film takes on extra meaning when it’s revealed the actress has Williams syndrome in real life.
“I didn’t know if she would have the strength or the talent to make the film,” says Archambault. “For an actor to have a feature film on your shoulders is huge, so for a year I hesitated. I did some workshops with her. With her syndrome she has theatrical behaviour, so she is very extroverted and that’s not good for cinema but I loved her light. Her magical light. Her happiness and she’s a good singer and I needed a good singer. No lip syncing.
“At some point I realized, it was her. I’ll let go of perfection and things I had in mind and I’ll try and find ways to work with her and find solutions every day because she is just so right for the part. It wasn’t that easy and editing helps.”
The finished film is a tender tearjerker, but undeniably soul-stirring.
“It’s a delicate subject,” says Archambault, “but I knew I didn’t want to go into miserabilism and at the same time I didn’t want it to be too sugary. If I had used only actors I think it would have been fake.
“We hoped we would reach an audience. I didn’t want to just make a film about mentally challenged people in love. Yes, it is a film about love but it is about music as well. Choir singing and how it gives you strength, whatever you are in life. I wanted people to identify with that.”