Gabrielle finds place in the heart

GABRIELLE (M)★★★General release (French with English subtitles.)

Infused with tenderness and a naturalistic grace, this story of a young disabled woman looking for love and independence is designed to tug at the heartstrings, much like its compatriot French-Canadian film from 2011, Monsieur Lazhar.

Although there are some wonderful performances, especially by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard and Alexandre Landry in the central roles, the film isn’t easy for audiences. It’s rather slow to get going and fails badly with its ending. In between, however, there’s a lot to like. Some important issues are raised about independence and disability, and there’s some wonderful choral music.

Gabrielle suffers from Williams syndrome, a rare developmental disorder that is also characterised by a gregarious personality and an affinity for music. She is 22 and lives in a permanent-care facility, where she has fallen for Martin (Landry), who also has a great voice. Together they sing in a choir that is preparing for a major concert, but they also start exploring each other sexually, against the rules in their group home.

When carers call in Martin’s mother (Marie Gignac) and Gabrielle’s sister, Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), to talk about the issue, Martin is taken out of the home by his mother, who is unable to accept that her son has emotional and physical needs. With Gabrielle lovesick and confused, Sophie must spend more time with her sister, even though she is meant to be going to join her partner in India.

Co-writer and director Louise Archambault adopts the fashionable documentary-realist style – explaining nothing of the back story, using constantly moving cameras, and allowing her actors a naturalistic physical freedom in their story world.

For 20 minutes, it feels like a documentary with little story offered up, but slowly the music and performances, by a mix of professional and intellectually impaired actors, win you over. As the drama develops, the warmth and authenticity of the film pull you into a space where there are no doubts about the needs of the two lovers, Gabrielle and Martin.

As the words of one of the film’s most beautiful songs suggest, they are ”ordinary people” who just want the things that everyone else wants. This sentiment becomes a powerful force through the film, undermined by a strange choice of song and events in the final scenes.

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