Louise Archambault’s Gabrielle is centered around the eponymous character (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) and her pursuit of independence and satisfaction in her daily and interpersonal life. Her special needs necessitate constant reconciliation with the rapidly changing variables of her psychological and physical surroundings. However, the film is more than a reductive parable of triumph in the face of developmental disability. Archambault explores dimensions of Gabrielle’s existence and its emotional intricacies that trouble every human. Its optimistic, light-hearted gestalt may render the film dismissible to some, but a more generous viewer may perceive the complexity that trumps its saccharine tones.
Gabrielle has Williams Syndrome, which displays itself in her impaired motor skills, recurring problematic diabetes, verbal astuteness, and creative attunement. She participates in a choir group consisting primarily of those with special needs, including her love interest Martin (Alexandre Landry). The adolescent electricity of their relationship raises a conflict between families as to whether they are suited for romance; Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), Gabrielle’s older sister (who has assumed a maternal attitude), advocates in favor of the two. Martin’s overprotective and dour mother Claire (Marie Gignac) disagrees and intervenes, to the chagrin and sorrow of Gabrielle and Sophie. Meanwhile, Sophie’s plans to join her partner in India are complicated by her attachment and sense of obligation to Gabrielle and her rocky pursuit of the self-sufficiency she desires.
Marion-Rivard’s Gabrielle is animated and candid, her countenance displaying a full spectrum of expression throughout the film. Desormeaux-Pouli is fiercely disarming in her conviction, and Landry’s portrayal of Martin is sensitive and detail-oriented; both are complementary to Gabrielle. The emotional and sexual affection between Gabrielle and Martin is organic and truthful.
In any film in which the odds are stacked against someone, there’s a risk of a benevolent, Superman-like presence. Sophie borderlines on the archetypal “do-gooder” figure (her partner more so, via Skype, nonetheless), but fortunately, neither are wildly superlative or obnoxious. However, both Claire and Gabrielle’s mother (Isabelle Vincent) confuse the narrative with their abrupt and inconsistent presences (and lack thereof). Their characters stay flat, and the lack in preface or substance deprives any indication of formative events of their children’s lives.
The film relies on the significance of gesture and location to channel and process emotion. Gabriel and Martin’s sense of assertiveness manifest themselves in their dexterity and precision — Martin working in a woodshop, Gabrielle handling office documents. Gabrielle’s mastery of grilled cheese sandwiches is a milemarker in her developing independence, and choir (Les Muses de Montreal) is the incubator and outlet for catharsis via expression. Visually, the film is shot in a modern and clean fashion, taking advantage well of Montreal’s locales.
Gabrielle pays attention to the psychology of caring and the ways in which it extends itself across all relationships, in varying capacities. The film is about the significance of autonomy (whether it be in terms of paying rent or maintaining a healthy sexual life) and how this autonomy is inaccessible to some. Gabrielle’s family dynamic exposes issues stemming from the family structure, through complicating factors such as distance (the most moving scene is perhaps Gabrielle’s severe and rattling reaction to Sophie’s departure), codependency, empathy, and well-intentioned protectiveness. Although the film begins and concludes in a “feel good” spirit (however tenuously the term applies), Gabrielle is Louise Archambault’s defensible story about the realization of one’s authentic self.