Canada’s foreign-language Oscar nominee for 2013, and the winner of the audience award at last year’s Locarno film festival, Gabrielle is a big-hearted drama about a developmentally disabled young woman, Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard), who sings in a local choir. Gabrielle wants more independence so she can pursue a romantic relationship with fellow singer Martin (Alexandre Landry), but Martin’s mother pulls them apart.
As a précis, this sounds like a recipe for egregious emotional manipulation, but writer-director Louise Archambault doesn’t take on the subject that way. As she showed in her first feature, 2006’s gambling addiction drama, Familia, her approach to issue dramas is exploratory rather than predictable. Instead of a message movie, Gabrielle is a romance and an unusual kind of musical that seamlessly integrates special needs actors with the other cast members.
The choir where Gabrielle and Martin sing is part of a real performing arts school for people with disabilities, Les Muses: centre des arts de la scène. Many of the students and teachers play themselves in the film. The director discovered the star Gabrielle Marion-Rivard there. She has Williams syndrome, a genetic defect characterized by learning impairment, sociability and high musical skills. And in Marion-Rivard’s case, acting skills as well, in a radiant performance that works seamlessly with the professional actors in the cast, including her co-star Landry, who plays a shy, friendly mentally delayed man in his mid-20s. They make an adorable couple.
Early scenes establish the circumference of Gabrielle’s life: There’s the choir, where the class is practising for a summer performance with the legendary Quebec singer-songwriter, Robert Charlebois. Then there’s the group home where she resides with other adults with disabilities under the sympathetic watch of supervisor Benoit (Benoit Gouin). Her closest family member is her beautiful sister, Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) who has a boyfriend in India, Raphael (Sébastien Ricard), who talks to her on Skype. He’s asking Sophie to come join him, teaching at a music school for poor children, but she’s worried about abandoning Gabrielle.
Things get complicated when Martin visits Gabrielle at her community home and his mother, Claire (Marie Gignac), who has come to pick him up, discover the couple half-undressed in Gabrielle’s room. Later, when Gabrielle and Martin are caught making out after a school dance, the principal calls a their family conference. While Sophie supports letting them become lovers, Martin’s mother decides her son is incapable of an intimate relationship and pulls him out of the choir.
While Gabrielle isn’t sentimental, it’s also not overly subtle. As the mother of a developmentally delayed son, her obtuseness here seems extreme (She actually asks if Gabrielle has been sterilized.) The caring characters here tend to be saintly, and the uncaring ones too harsh, but rather than moralizing, her intent is to show people of various aptitudes and deficits struggling with their lives.
There’s some suspense as Gabrielle, despondent at being separated from Martin, attempts to prove her independence with near disastrous results, but the overall upbeat ending is never seriously in doubt. Throughout, Archambault makes great use of choir rehearsal scenes, both to emphasize Gabrielle’s emotional swings and to bring fresh perspective to songs like Charlesbois’s Ordinaire (Ordinary Guy). As a bonus, Charlebois provides an entertaining cameo and a rousing performance during a climactic concert.