French-Canadian filmmaker Louise Archambault has crossed from documentary to fiction throughout her career and has found an effective marriage between the two with Gabrielle, the story of two people with Williams Syndrome who fall in love and attempt to pursue a relationship with varying degrees of resistance from those around them.
Gabrielle Marion-Rivard in the semi-autobiographical role of Gabrielle
The title character is played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who herself has Williams Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder typified by impairment in cognitive function but a highly sociable and cheerful demeanour. Gabrielle is a member of a choir, Les Muses Chorale, a real choir consisting of singers with intellectual disabilities. It is there that she meets Martin, a fellow singer. The two form a mutual attraction, which gradually develops from innocent affection to something more physical.
From the outset it's made clear that an independent life is out of the question for Gabrielle. She needs supervision to perform daily routines and lacks the ability to orientate herself within her surroundings. Yet her love for Martin has made her determined to prove herself as self-sufficient and capable of having a sexual relationship.
Gabrielle with Choirmaster Remi, played by Vincent-Guillaume Otis
In this respect she comes against opposition, most vehemently from Martin's protective mother, who removes him from the choir and forbids any further contact between the star-crossed lovers. Others, including Gabrielle's sister and chief guardian, Sophie, are more open-minded, but even she must concede that Gabrielle is incapable of living independently. Scenes of Gabrielle narrowly cheating death or injury by obliviously walking into open traffic or sticking a knife into a toaster make for pulse-quickening panic.
At the centre of the film is the emotive issue of whether people with genetic disorders should have the autonomy of developing a sexual relationship. Discussions of sterilization and other preventions come to the surface. All the while, Gabrielle and Martin continue their tunnel-vision determination to be together.
Gabrielle Marion-Rivard has received a great deal of well deserved praise for her performance. She is immediately likeable with an infectious energy but equally effective in scenes where she is believably traumatised.
Alexandre Landry as Gabrielle's boyfriend, Martin
Personally though, I was completely blown away by Alexandre Landry as Martin. I just assumed he had Williams Syndrome too, which in fact he doesn't, so seamlessly does he blend in with the classmates at Les Muses. His scenes with Gabrielle are so expertly handled when they could have easily been disastrous.
Landry, and his fellow choir members, also prove to have beautiful voices. Their performances and the selection of songs they deliver are an absolute dream, often providing the characters with an outlet to express their emotions.
Watching a film depicting and performed by people with intellectual disabilities is probably not the sexiest subject for general audiences, and challenging that audience to consider the sex lives of these people makes it even more confronting. Yet Gabrielle is an altogether disarming experience. The film achieves a delicate balance and shows a generosity to its characters, never offering judgements or providing pat conclusions.