Thérèse Desqueyroux (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Artificial Eye) Running time: 110 minutes approx.
Landes, France 1926 and Thérèse Larroque (Audrey Tautou), the free-spirited daughter of a radical politician marries Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche) a wealthy pinery owner and brother of her best friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), hoping that marriage would calm the wild ideas in head. Unfortunately for Thérèse married life proves to be a constant stream of boredom and being stifled by both Bernard and his snooty family, driving her to desperate measures in order to break free from them.
Based on the 1927 novel by François Mauriac and a remake of a 1962 adaptation by Georges Franju, this is the last film from celebrated French director Claude Miller who died shortly after filming was completed in April 2012 aged 70. This might explain the somewhat dour, melancholic and eerily quiet tone of the film, as though Miller was aware his time was up and the film was his cathartic goodbye note to the world. The film debuted in Cannes where it, somewhat fittingly under the circumstances, closed the competition.
Our titular heroine is a fairly modern girl by 1920’s standards while Bernard is very much immersed in his family’s traditional ways, such as hunting, shouting at servants and other such Bourgeois habits that Thérèse finds uncomfortable. Yet she believes that she is somehow bad for having thoughts that defy the conventions of her social setting, hoping being a wife will offer her new opportunities that are more acceptable. It is soon apparent to Thérèse that she was right about challenging these conventions as they serve as nothing more as a prison of ennui with the added discomfort surrounding her rigid husband and her boorish in-laws. Complicating matters further is Anne who finds happiness with a young itinerant Jewish lad named Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber) of whom her anti-Semitic family naturally disapproves.
Thérèse has a baby daughter but this changes nothing, and certainly doesn’t bring husband and wife any closer. Meanwhile Bernard’s health issues continue to plague him, and his doctor prescribes four drops of arsenic in water to help. Pushed to the limit Thérèse finds herself compelled to take advantage of this situation and make an attempt on Bernard’s life. But a mix up at the pharmacist brings her plan to light and Thérèse is ostracised by Bernard and the family. Typical of their snobbery, they are only concerned about the social implications of this scandal and act accordingly to save face while punishing Thérèse.
There are many themes running through this story which never seem to be fully addressed – prejudice, isolation, social snobbery, oppression – rather Miller dips his toes in to this waters then quickly retracts them as they are too cold. A lot seems to go on in this film but it’s done in such a clinical and restrained manner with little in the way of a soundtrack that everything feels to be moving at half speed. While we certainly get an idea that Thérèse is having the life sucked out of her by Bernard and the family, we never get a completely convincing explanation of justification for her wanting to do what she did to her husband. The lack of suspense leading to this moment makes this quite a dull murder attempt.
As is the custom with French period pieces, the recreation of the 1920’s is lovingly handles and as authentic as possible. However the photography, while superb and glorious, is often dark and drab in Miller’s quest to depict the austerity and the ennui of Thérèse’s listless married life. This robs the cameras of truly showing off the splendour of the locations and the hard work of the design team, but Miller appears to have been focused on the story over the visuals.
After years of playing the wide-eyed kooky girl child Audrey Tautou is understandably keen to flex her acting muscles with some meatier fare. She touched upon this in A Very Long Engagement and Coco Before Chanel but his is one where she attacks it wholesale. It’s no surprise considering everything Thérèse goes through that Tautou spends the majority of this film chain smoking and looking sullen, which makes her subtle performance difficult to assess. With such vagueness on Tautou’s part the audience is unable to fully appreciate Thérèse’s feelings and the extent of her internal suffering, while it is up to the single minded and stuffy actions of Bernard to tell the story for us. It is not until the final act when Tautou’s truly superb essaying of a worn out Thérèse is a last minute snatching of glory from the jaws of defeat.
Another problem is that we don’t get much idea of Thérèse’s pre-marriage vivaciousness aside from some flashbacks to her childhood where she and Anne played together. In anything Anne goes on the greater journey of the two, from her fated romance with Jean to her sense of betrayal towards Thérèse who refuses to back her under pressure from Bernard and her later betrothing to a rich and more family approved prospect. Anaïs Demoustier is 24 years-old but she looks fourteen all the way through the film, making the usually ageless Tautou look old for once. As Anne she provides the emotional backbone of the film and plays out the rebellious adventure Thérèse wished she could go on. Bernard’s character is fairly one dimensional but Gilles Lellouche does his best to make him subtly unpleasant but not so much of a sympathy figure post his near death experience.
There is a certain irony that such a bleak and energy sapping film should be the last from a director in his final days and while Claude Miller doesn’t bow out on a dynamic high, Thérèse Desqueyroux, for all its lethargy, is a stylish and well made, quietly affecting film that allows him to leave us on an artistic one.
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
2.0 Stereo LPCM
Memories of Filming
Rating – ** ½
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