Thérèse Desqueyroux didn’t envisage her marriage like this. She smiles as she walks down the aisle, while an onlooker comments to a friend, “I thought you said she was pretty.” Thérèse is an intelligent, self-contained woman, who underneath her cool façade burns with emotional longing. She does not know, perhaps, exactly what she wants but she is under no illusions as to what she doesn’t want and her marriage to Bernard, a rich man from an old family who own a lot of property and a great many pines, has left her disappointed, unfulfilled and crushed.
The oppressiveness that Thérèse suffers under is conjured exceptionally well by the late, great Claude Miller. This is his final film, adapted from the famous novel by Francois Mauriac. At the centre of it is a compellingly opaque performance by Audrey Tautou, whose blank face and twitching smile betray a deep and buried suffering. She admits herself that she is ‘a woman who has too many ideas’, and hopes to find in marriage a way to give them order, restrain them. She does not succeed.
This is a work about women, about an entire social system, its institutions and its morals. Throughout most of the film, Thérèse is a prisoner, very quiet and apparently meek, so much so that a lot of the time she appears like a ghost. She is forced to live life passively, in a big country house enclosed by the pines belonging to her and her husband. The house itself is dark and vast; stifling in the summer, freezing in the winter. It is here that most of the plot unfolds.
Thérèse is very lonely from the beginning. She only has one confidante; Anne, Bernard’s sister, who has been her friend since they were children. Bernard and Anne enjoy hunting in the pine forests surrounding the family home, a sport which Thérèse, with much distaste, observes silently. As a child accompanying her friend, Anne shoots a pigeon, and then picking it up, breaks its neck in front of her. The film is littered with these casualties, where the beautiful animals are taken prisoner, killed, and laid abjectly on tables and windowsills in that vast, shadowy house. Thérèse, characteristically, says nothing; only a flicker of disgust passing across her face betrays what lies underneath.
As Audrey Tautou has remarked herself in interviews, ‘There is no room for poetry in Thérèse’s world.’ It is heartbreaking when Anne, falling in love for the first time with Jean, a young man from a wealthy family, is forbidden to see him and actually held prisoner by her family because he is Jewish. Similar rules would have bound any young, unmarried woman from a long-standing French family of such importance at the time. What is perhaps most surprising is that Thérèse, against our initial expectations, is complicit in Anne’s misery.
Unlike other films of this kind, the moral lines here are blurred. Our sympathies do not lie completely with any one character. They are complex, realistically drawn, and thus all distinctly flawed. Therese is not the saint-like heroine; her transgressions and coldness leave a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth at times. Similarly, Bernard may be an ignorant chauvinist and thoroughly unlikeable, but he is not the complete, two-dimensional brute that other stories of this kind have presented us with.
Miller’s final film is a truly respectable one to round his career off with – an intelligent and sensitive adaptation of a difficult literary work to bring successfully to the screen. It has been adapted once before by Georges Franju in 1962 (a film that is sadly not available on to watch in the UK) – an adaptation starring Emmanuelle Riva in the title role. Having not seen it, I can’t compare but this is a very respectable version, and very faithful to the source material. It is perhaps, a little too subdued for its own good at times; Bernard’s first reactions about two-thirds of the way through the film are so quiet and calculated that it is almost (but not quite) a tonal dysfunction. That however, is a testament to the slow-burning suspense and feeling of intense claustrophobia and suffocation that pervade the film. Thérèse, Bernard and Anne all suffer, and do so greatly. But Mauriac did not go for the easy, melodramatic way out, and Miller has done great justice to his source material. The ending is wonderfully managed.
Review by LiveWire Film Critic, James Martin (June ’13)
Thérèse Desqueyroux is another film about alienation; another outsider piece about solidarity and indifference. Indifference is gradually becoming more commonplace in society. Mental difference and instability are no longer associated with everything from minor quirks and individuality, and we have a lot more freedom to embrace what makes us unique. But for Therese, the main character of this film, her individuality puzzles her above anything else. It seems an issue she has always struggled to comprehend. Emotions are lost on her and she has no empathy or remorse. This makes her hard to identify with. At the beginning of the film she seems normal for an ascendant of a wealthy upper class family. Yet her cold unflinching reactions to her husband’s heart complaints, wanton disregard of her own child and multiple attempts to poison her beloved, point to the contrary. The film has a bit of a slow start but once the pines are blazing a downhill slide begins in their relationship. Then things start to get interesting.
The film is based on the 1927 novel of the same name and was director Claude Miller’s last film before his death in 2012. He specialised in comedies and dramas and there are welcome hints of tender humour in the film, usually between husband and wife. Thérèse doesn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of her actions and shows no remorse when her life takes a downhill slide towards the end. When asked why she tried to poison her husband, she replies ironically that she wanted to see “a hint of worry in his eyes”. In dramas such as this it pays to have an interesting or well developed character central to the plot, however I personally was never that interested in our lead here. That said, if one is uninterested in character or story elements they can always sit back and marvel at the visuals and 1920s mise-en-scene.
Review by LiveWire Film Critic, Paddy Johnson (June ’13)