THERESE DESQUEYROUX. Starring Audrey Tautou, Gilles Lelouche, Anaïs Demoustier, Catherine Arditi, Isabelle Sadoyan, Max Morel, Stanley Weber, Alba Gaïa Bellugi Matilda Marty-Giraut. Directed by Claude Miller.110 minutes. Rated M (sex scenes).
Celebrated French author, Francois Mauriac’s 1927 novel was brought to the screen in 1962 in a black and white version, directed by Georges Franju, with Emmanuelle Riva (who had come to attention in the late 1950s, early 1960s in Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Leon Morin, Pretre, and who was Oscar-nominated in 2012 as Best Actress for Amour) and Philippe Noiret.
This new version, fifty years later, is in colour and has two of France’s most famous contemporary actors, Audrey Tautou and Gilles Lellouche. Audrey Tautou is best-known for her fey Amelie. She is far more serious here, barely smiling throughout the whole film. Gilles Lellouche has the advantage of being able to immerse himself in quite a range of films and characters.
The setting has been changed by some years to the late 1920s. It is rural France on the coast, mansions built among pine forests. The film looks the part and period, creating a very French atmosphere.
Therese Desqueyroux is in the vein of the novels by Balzac, Zola and Flaubert. It focuses on a woman who finds herself living in the wrong place and the wrong time. She reads, is introspective and wants order in her life. It is expected that she marries a local, wealthy forest-owner. And she does. It is clear from the start, with her self-preoccupied gloom and his gung-ho attitude towards life, towards hunting, towards business and towards marriage, that the marriage is bound to fail.
On paper the plot can sound melodramatic as Bernard Desqueroux, a touch of hypochondria spoiling his outgoing zest, is prescribed arsenic drops. Arsenic drops are always meant as means for death. Since this is a rather low-key treatment of characters in a society where what people think and say is far more important than basic moral issues, there is no real blow-up about Bernard and his illness. Rather, stories are invented to save face.
Therese intervenes in the life of her childhood friend, and Bernard’s sister, Anne, when she becomes infatuated with a local young man from a Portugese-Jewish family (revealing the underlying anti-Semitism in French society) and loses Anne’s friendship. Confined to her house, Therese pines away, her life becoming more squalid as she neglects herself.
Clearly, the novel and film are studies of individuals trapped, willingly or unwillingly, in their lives and circumstances, especially women who are confined by patriarchal expectations. Novel and film are also studies of narrow societies, preoccupied with business success and their reputations.
The treatment is measured, not hurried, giving the audience time to watch, reflect and test their emotional and moral responses to the characters, especially Therese. This was the final film by prominent French director, Claude Miller.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out: April 11, 2013.