(Originally posted on 10 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
One of the most important lessons a parent has to learn is that, once the child is born, one’s life ceases to be one’s own. Every decision that may have been made for selfish reasons in the past now must be made with the child in mind. Want to change jobs? You’d better stay at your old one until you’ve gotten the new one. Looking for a new home? Pick one in a good school district. Even the smaller things change — meals, TV-viewing habits, and so on. Among other things, being a parent is about sublimating one’s own selfish desires in order to do right by one’s children.
But if the lifestyle of a contemporary parent seems tightly regimented, it’s nothing compared to the restrictions placed on housewives and mothers of prior generations. The vast majority of women, especially those of working-class backgrounds, were expected to get married, raise children, and care for their families. The best film I’ve seen about the difficulties of this lifestyle is Frederic Fonteyne’s Gilles’ Wife.
In Gilles’ Wife, Emmanuelle Devos stars as Elisa, a woman living in a small industrial village in the early part of the twentieth century. She’s the model of the devoted housewife and mother — cooking, cleaning, caring for the kids, and making love to her husband, Gilles (Clovis Cornillac). She seems to genuinely love her life — her personality is well-suited to it, and it brings her joy. Even the presence of her more forward-thinking sexpot sister Victorine (Laura Smet) can’t dissuade her from her opinion that this is the life for her.
Gradually, Victorine begins spending more time around the house. Gilles insists on keeping her company whenever possible, taking her along to family outings, and the like. One night, at a local dance, he spies her dancing closely with another man and he flies into a rage. Elisa, sitting nearby, says nothing, but takes it all in before trying to calm him down. But while Elisa quickly catches on to what is happening between Gilles and Victorine, she keeps her thoughts to herself, going about her wifely duties, even giving birth to another child. The only hint of Elisa’s true feelings comes when she’s alone, when she breaks down in crying jags or suddenly breaks a picture frame.
Eventually, Gilles confesses his love for Victorine to his wife. But while Elisa has known about it for a while, she feigns shock for her husband. What’s more, she tries to sympathize with him after he confesses to be jealous of her when she carries on with other men. Ever the dutiful wife, she even helps Gilles by spying on Victorine during the days, to report on whether she’s carrying on an affair with her boss at work.
All the while, she suffers in silence. What other choice does she have? There are very few prospects for women in Elisa’s situation. For one thing, she’s a Catholic, and as such divorce is forbidden. But even if she could divorce Gilles, what options would she have? The only thing that she’s been trained for in life is how to be a good wife and mother. Even if she did find some meager employment for herself, how would she care for the children?
Finally, Elisa decides to seek guidance from the only place she knows to look for it — the Church. She arrives in the middle of the day, sneaking in with an almost guilty look on her face. She tries to pray, but she’s anxious, distracted by a crew of workers inside the church. Finally, she goes to confess: “My husband is having an affair with my sister. I don’t say a word. If I do, he will leave. So I can’t…” Then she pauses for a fairly long time, collecting her thoughts. “Father, I need help. I don’t know… I don’t know what to do.”
The priest, whose face we never see, coldly responds by saying, “faced with the trials sent to you by God, refrain from any kind of revolt against the Lord.” He then continues: “as for your penance, you will say the rosary ten times.” As if the situation was somehow her doing, and saying the rosaries would suddenly make everything okay.
This film is unthinkable without Emmanuelle Devos, one of the most fascinating actresses working today. Large portions of her performance are played without dialogue, and while a lesser actress would strain to project Elisa’s emotional turmoil, Devos’ magnificent face is able to convey volumes seemingly without effort. Key to her acting gifts are her eyes, which are set in a way that it never appears that she’s looking directly at something, but usually seem to be gazing upward, thoughtful and ever-searching. Observe her silent reaction as the priest gives a textbook response to her confession — her jaw goes ever so slightly slack, and a look of utter defeat registers on her face as the priest slides shut the confessional divider.
What makes Gilles’ Wife such an achievement is not that Elisa is a special case, but that she isn’t. After she leaves confession, she decides to try to win her husband back by being so good a wife that he would have no choice but to stay. Like so many women who have stayed in loveless marriages in order to protect their family, Elisa puts her own feelings on the back burner to do what she believes — what she’s been taught — is right. It’s telling that the title of the film is not Elisa, but rather Gilles’ Wife. After all, it’s her vocation, how she defines herself and how she’s seen by others. We don’t really see any evidence of hopes or a life that wasn’t linked to her marriage. Who would Elisa be without Gilles? If he were gone, what would remain?