Thérèse Desqueyroux (2012)

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Marriage trap

Stephen Dalton of Hollywoor Reporter wrote, Miller’s “swansong feature has the glossy, well-dressed, slightly staid feel of a middlebrow TV miniseries. But it still packs enough dramatic weight and literary pedigree to make a box office splash outside France, especially with Audrey Tautou as the story’s iconic anti-heroine.” Partly to honour Miller, who died after completion of this film, it was the closing night film at Cannes last year. It got a reasonable reception after its 21 November French release — the Allociné rating was 3.4 out of five. This adaptation of the 1927 François Mauriac novel, one of his most famous, of a woman gradually unable to endure an oppressive marriage is the second: Georges Franju did one in 1962 with Emmanuelle Riva (currently back in the public eye from Michael Haneke’s Amour) and Philippe Noiret.

Here we have the very successful casting of Gilles Lellouche as Bernard Desqueroux, the man Thérèse marries, uniting their two families’ considerable land holdings in the Landes region forested with pines. Lellouche is one of those warmly macho characters, with a punch to him, even if he isn’t terribly distinctive. He is perfect for the part of the simple bird and dog countryman Thérèse will tire of and want to stun, whom she approves of in theory but hates in practice. Lellouche feels right in this part, a mixture of brutish and sympathetic. He’s a little Hemingwayesque; in fact he even looks like Hemingway himself. But as Thérèse we have Audrey Tatou, and herein lies the central problem of an otherwise polished, well modulated, and interesting film. We all knew Tatou as the charming gamine of Amélie, the twee, but splendidly and intricately twee, movie that made her famous. But in Claude Miller’s care she is a sad and dreary little wisp of a woman, and remains that from first moment to last in Thérèse Desqueyroux. Though the action takes her character through increibile changes, Tatou accompanies them limply, several steps behind. It is intriguing to imagine someone formidable, like Isabelle Huppert, reach the desperation of Thérèe; or someone young, vibrant, and beautiful, like Cécile de France, who breathed life into Miller’s 2007 A Secret. Then the changes might be really alarming and thought-provoking. Here they are simply inexplicable — especially since it’s an aspect of the plot that the protagonist herself can’t explain what she’s doing.

Even Lellouche suffers from a plot that loses its subtlety and abandons its own best interests at several turns. First this happens when Thérèse somehow betrays both her own desire for independence and the needs of her new bosom friend, Bernard’s sister Anne (the vibrant Anaïs Demoustier), after Anne has become enamoured of a young man (Stanley Weber) the family doesn’t approve of. Then this happens again when the action devolves into into a legal struggle to save the family, leading to Bernard and Thérèse’s estrangement. The best moments come when we’re dealing with the idea of the story, which is the conflict between economics and human psychology. The way things end is ambiguous. It’s a sad outcome for Thérèse that doesn’t seem so very sad at all. One longs for some bold strokes. But though this is polished and watchable, Miller once rarely shows a flair for storytelling here. Miller had luck in his choice of actors from time to time — Patrick Delawaere in his feature debut A Best Way to Walk, Charlotte Gainsbourg in L’Efronté and The Little Thief, Vincent Rottier in his collaboration with his son Nathan I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive Claude Miller had a cracking good story with Class Trip and A Secret. But his films always fall a bit short of first rate.

Thérèse Desqueyoux debuted at Cannes and showed at other festivals, then was released in France and other French-speaking locales in November. It was screened as a part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in collaboration with UniFrance, and also at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The Rendez-Vous also included a one-time screening of Georges Franju’s 1962 version of François Maurois’s Thérèse Desqueroux starring Emanuelle Riva, Philippe Noiret, and Édith Scob (of Franju’s famous Eyes Without a Face) as Bernard’s sister. Franju’s film is a grand black and white early Sixties French art film, closer to Maurois in its flashback frame structure, some literary references exchanged between Thérèse and Jean Azevedo, and in more liberal use of Thérèse’s voiceover, which can come at any moment, in any scene, and more stylish in every way, though the style is interchangeable in some ways with the work of several Nouvelle Vague directors of the period. Sami Frey as Jean seems less a pretty boy, more intelligent. Above all instead of Tautou’s pathetic, limp quality, there is the poetic sadness of Riva so memorably displayed in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. Franju’s version is set in the present, so it makes its points about the tyrannies of provincial ignorance and materialism with more immediacy. Franju’s film has more notable actors and is more stylish. Certain aspects of the narrative — Thérèse’s original motivation for marrying Bernard, the gradual process by which she falls into poisoning him with arsenic — are more embroidered by Miller, but in “explaining” things he may only weaken the force of Maurois’s stark story, whose surreal “horror movie” aspects Franju seized upon so neatly half a century ago. Maurice Jarre’s music for Franju’s film is as distinctive as everything else, though a jazzy passage during the honeymoon dinner shot feels obtrusive. The writer for the French daily L’Express compares the two films, finds the new one “insipid,” and concludes we’d do best to remember Claude Miller for his 1976 feature debut, The Best Way to Walk.

Director: Claude Miller
Stars: Audrey Tautou, Gilles Lellouche, Anaïs Demoustier
Runtime: 110 min
Country: France

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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