Georges Franju,” Thérèse Desqueyroux” (1962)
A remake of this film with Audrey Tautou as the titular character was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 so I thought I’d see the Franju original to see the spell it still holds on people 50 years after its release. This is a psychological and social study of a sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent woman unhappy in her marriage and of the bourgeois society in which she is trapped. Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) has just been acquitted of the attempted murder of her husband Bernard (Philippe Noiret) by poisoning. As she leaves the court-house, she ponders on what it was back in her past that led her onto the tragic path she took and will continue to take. Thérèse’s musings lead the audience to the innocent lesbian relationship she has with her husband’s half-sister Anne (Edith Scob), the affection she has for Bernard’s forest on his family estate and the loveless marriage between herself and her self-centred, boorish mari.
Anne falls in love with a young Jewish man Jean Azevedo of whom her parents and Bernard disapprove. They pressure Thérèse to talk her out of the romance as they believe it will reflect badly on them; the family is quite jealous of its bloodline even though intermarriages among relatives in the past have led to Bernard inheriting a nervous, hypochondriac tendency. Anne goes away, Thérèse strikes up a friendship with Azevedo and both discover they have literary interests in common. Azevedo admits he’s not in love with Anne, composes a letter saying so to her and leaves for Paris. Anne reacts badly to the news and flies off in search of Azevedo. Time passes, Thérèse has a child who brings Anne back into the family although the women’s friendship is practically over; while Anne coos over the baby and mothers it, Thérèse becomes increasingly depressed. One day, a wildfire emergency occurs and Bernard overdoses on his medicine (which includes arsenic) and falls sick, and this instills an idea in Thérèse’s mind that grows and begins to obsess her. One thing leads to another and Thérèse narrowly escapes being convicted of attempted murder. However the punishment that awaits her from Bernard, his family, her father, indeed the entire country town community where they live, turns out to be an oppressive psychological burden.
This is a highly absorbing film even though it’s slow-paced and the plot treads a well-worn path in dealing with free-spirited individuals and their inability to conform to social strictures imposed on them by well-meaning and not so well-meaning others. The quality of the acting by Riva is superb: Riva’s beautiful yet distinctively sculpted face registers every small nuance of emotion and reveals a very complex woman whose feelings and moods run so deep that in spite of her intelligence and sensitivity, she does not always know or understand why she acts the way she does, or why the impulse to murder her husband seizes hold of her and obsesses her so. There is a suggestion of psychological denial on her part and a possibility that she is jealous of Anne’s freedom and impulsive behaviour. The supporting cast is quietly and consistently good: Noiret’s portrayal of Bernard appears brutally stereotyped at times and one sometimes wonders whether the movie would not have been improved if Bernard’s character had been changed to be a little more sympathetic towards his wife but still loyal to his family and community traditions. The two characters’ inability to communicate and to find common ground in their interests and psychology from which a real union of minds and bodies might grow is clear from several scenes between the two alone throughout the film. Scob’s appearances are few but she makes the most of them in delineating a character who is child-like and impetuous in her responses and whose personality, hungry for life and adventure, starts to alienate Thérèse who envies her friend’s freedom and joy of living.
The direction is adroit with use of zoom in some scenes and the shooting of the film from Thérèse’s point of view, including a voice-over by Riva used to express her feelings and motivations, in most parts of the film. The cinematography often emphasises beautiful and peaceful scenes in nature, changes in the weather and seasons, and Thérèse’s feelings for the pine trees on her husband’s estate. Probably more might have been done in the film to contrast the woman’s feel for nature, her closeness to it (near the end of the film, Thérèse reveals a spiritualist connection with the pine trees) and how it sustains her on the one hand and on the other Bernard’s exploitation of nature as a landowner and eager huntsman.
The film’s conclusion seems rather forced and contrived but the screenplay is based closely on François Mauriac’s 1927 eponymous novel which interestingly used silent film techniques to tell its tale. It is significant that Thérèse gains her freedom and escapes her oppressive marriage, family and community but at the expense, it would appear, of Anne losing hers (Bernard waits until after his half-sister’s marriage to a man of his family’s choosing to repudiate Thérèse). The rocky path taken by the relationship between the two women, initially close but becoming strained and ultimately broken by both external social pressure, Thérèse’s own ambiguous feelings about it, and her jealousy of Anne’s relationship with Azevedo (who seems a better fit for Thérèse herself), is described very well indeed by action and plot twists, and needs no temper tantrums or voice-over commentary to reinforce what viewers can see for themselves. This gives the film great subtlety and depth in describing the two women’s feelings for each other and their gradual estrangement at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in most countries (Britain legalised homosexuality in 1967) and could never be mentioned in films, yet was countenanced in many local communities in these societies.
Although the film’s themes may be outdated for most Western audiences – some audiences in Britain, France and other parts of Europe where social class and hierarchies are still strong influences on society may see a connection between their own cultures and the conservative, provincial Catholic culture of Thérèse’s world where appearances count for more than authenticity and hypocrisy is rife – it is a skilfully made film with emotional depth and is worthwhile seeing for film students, especially those wishing to use film techniques and cinematography to tell stories and convey deeper themes and messages.