Gabrielle explores Williams syndrome by casting an actress who actually has it
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Gabrielle explores Williams syndrome by casting an actress who actually has it

Williams syndrome isn’t particularly well known, as chromosomal defects go. Steven Pinker talks about it briefly in his book The Language Instinct, because people with Williams syndrome, although having numerous intellectual disabilities, often tend to be hyper-verbal. They’re also unusually gregarious, taking an instant liking to virtually all strangers (until given a reason to distrust them) and engaging in acts of spontaneous physical affection that non-disabled folks often find inappropriate, for a variety of complex social reasons. 

The French-Canadian drama Gabrielle—no relation to the acclaimed 2005 French-but-not-Canadian movie Gabrielle starring Isabelle Huppert—is about a young woman with Williams syndrome, played by a non-professional actor who actually has it. First seen singing with a choir made up entirely of people with developmental disabilities, Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) is 22 years old but functions as if she were perhaps 8 or 9, unable to take care of herself without assistance. She’s old enough to have fallen in love, however, and has formed a romantic relationship with fellow choir member Martin (Alexandre Landry), to the intense disapproval of Martin’s overprotective mother (Marie Gignac). Unhappy with being told that she can’t get married and have kids like everyone else, Gabrielle begins to chafe at the restrictions imposed upon her life, expressing for the first time a desire to leave the facility where she lives and get her own apartment. At the same time, though, she’s devastated when her sister, Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), who helps look after her, suggests that she may join her boyfriend in India, where he works with underprivileged children. 

That last detail is indicative of Gabrielle’s relentless positivity, which sometimes makes it feel less like a drama than like a PSA for social awareness. Will Gab (as she’s called by friends and family) be able to circumvent the machinations of Martin’s mother and have sex? Will the choir’s big public performance with real-life Québécois singer Robert Charlebois be a huge success? Halfway through the film, it’s pretty clear what the answer to both of these questions will be, and Gabrielle turns out to be the kind of triumphalist entertainment in which they’re answered almost simultaneously in the last scene, allowing for a final fade-out on Marion-Rivard’s beaming face. Challenging this ain’t. 

It is, however, frequently charming. Marion-Rivard, who won Canada’s equivalent of the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year (the film itself won Best Picture), gives a strong, sophisticated performance, even as she’s disarmingly open in a way that would be almost impossible for an actor without Williams syndrome to fake. The way her entire face crinkles with delight in response to almost anything kind or amusing that’s said to her is impossible to resist, but when the script requires her to simulate anguish or despair, she does the job as convincingly as any pro. (It’s also refreshing to see a film that acknowledges, without fuss, that people with disabilities still feel sexual desire.) Marion-Rivard makes it easy to root for Gabrielle. It’s just too bad that rooting for Gabrielle is all the movie has in mind.

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