Director: Claude Miller
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Gilles Lellouche, Anaïs Demoustier
Thérèse Desqueyroux was prolific French director Claude Miller’s final project, prior to his death last year. An elegant adaptation of François Mauriac’s legendary 1927 novel, the film is a dark and intriguing portrayal of the life of the tragically unhappy Thérèse (Audrey Tautou). Set in the 1920’s, Thérèse struggles with her birth-right as a bourgeoisie woman and is ultimately driven to extreme actions.
The supposed catalyst comes in the form of her marriage; one based on convenience as a means of connecting two wealthy families; her own and that of Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche). As time passes, Thérèse becomes increasingly stifled by what she considers a monotonous life; one that could only be salvaged by true love and passion. Her emotions take a sinister turn when she learns of the smouldering romance experienced by her childhood best friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), Bernard’s younger sister.
Her ever-growing disinterest in life causes Thérèse to wallow in a passive stupor, and Tautou is consistently apathetic and delicate in her role. Her dissatisfaction with her current situation is palpable as she is frequently seen smoking, sleeping and staring blankly at the world; a dour expression forever colouring her face. Despite her obvious stoicism, the sudden cause of her rash behaviour is shrouded in ambiguity; no clear explanation is given for the film’s crux. The viewer is left to their own estimation as to why she was set ablaze so fiercely, with only subtle hints as a guide.
A possible justification for Thérèse’s depressive state is her less than understanding family. We are introduced to a variety of unlikable characters with questionable morals and little regard for the protagonist’s feelings or well-being. They are perfectly flawed and realistic, though a little monstrous in their behaviour; as is Thérèse herself at times. As Thérèse’s husband, Bernard is substantially central to the plot, so it’s a pity that at times he’s portrayed in quite a one-dimensional manner. There’s a sense that his personality has been flattened somewhat in transit from book to screen. Given that he is not an embodiment of the devil incarnate, Thérèse’s actions can be further scrutinised when put into context.
The coastal scenery of the South-West area of Landes is a visual treat, and presents a stark contrast between this idyllic location and the bleak torment occupying Thérèse’s mind. The steady pace of the film is an achievement, and allows the viewer time to reflect as the narrative poses a myriad of questions in want of feasible answers. Issues of familial and marital tension, sexuality, love, patriarchy and mental illness run rampant throughout the plot. Unfortunately, 110 minutes is not a substantial amount of time to fully explore these themes, so the psychological development of Thérèse feels insufficient. Of course, the nuances lacking in the film are to be found in the novel upon which it’s based. Despite the limits imposed by time restriction, Thérèse Desqueyroux succeeds in being a tasteful piece, though it feels stiff and unsure of itself at times.
In A Nutshell: Equal measures of dreary and thought-provoking; it is both beautiful and frustrating in its ambivalence.