Thérèse Desqueyroux (dir. Claude Miller): straight story-telling narrative turns psychological study into mere historical soap drama

Claude Miller, “Thérèse Desqueyroux” (2012)

Claude Miller’s swansong film is a historical drama piece starring Audrey Tautou in the eponymous role occupied by Emmanuelle Riva in Georges Franju’s version of 50 years ago. The film follows strict chronological order in delineating the tale of a provincial land-owner’s wife and the effects that living in a stultifying rural society obsessed by money, property and maintaining appearances has on her thinking and behaviour. The country setting affords many opportunities for beautiful cinematography of scenes in the country and of the sea-shore though Miller perhaps does not capitalise on nature as much as he should to create mood and an oppressive feel.

The film deals quickly with the childhood friendship between Thérèse Larroque and Anne Desqueyroux and does not plumb the lesbian sub-text closely: the friendship is presented as fairly innocent though quite intimate. Skim a few years and Thérèse (Tautou) is wedded to Anne’s much older brother Bernard (Gilles Lelouche). The newlyweds quickly settle into a marriage of convenience: Thérèse realises Bernard is no intellectual match for her and is obsessed with his family inheritance, their combined properties of pine trees and generally indulging in wealthy land-owner pursuits like hunting game. When Anne (Anaïs Demoustier) falls in love with local boy Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber), Thérèse is called upon to break up the romance but not before she herself is held spellbound by Azevedo’s intelligence and education. A wildfire incident and Bernard’s heart problem give Thérèse some strange ideas and she acts on them, with the result that Bernard nearly dies and both their families must deal with the consequent legal problems. Although Thérèse narrowly escapes jail-time, a sentence of a different and more horrifying kind awaits her …

The psychological study is weakly developed and restrained to Tautou’s stony-faced expression, sardonic brown eyes and cold behaviour towards her husband, in-laws and young daughter. The audience has to guess at the level of turmoil in Thérèse’s mind as she sees Anne having the kind of carefree relationship with Azevedo she would dearly love for herself while she plays dutiful wife to an unimaginative and boorish oik. Thérèse’s motivations for what she does throughout the film seem rather like after-thoughts: she agrees to marry Bernard in the belief that marriage will help sort out her intellectual restlessness and provide her with mental companionship; when the marriage does not pan out as she hopes, she stays in a mental rut, her frustrations festering, until an opportunity to play out her feelings of resentment drops into her lap. This all seems quite superficial though I admit human psychology can be as banal and mean-spirited as this.

The film does improve on Georges Franju’s 1962 film version in that Lelouche plays a more sympathetic husband than his predecessor did. At the end of this film, Bernard and Thérèse part on better terms than they did 50 years before and there is the faint hope of a reconciliation some time in the distant future. “Thérèse Desqueyroux” is one of those films where the lead character is not nearly as important as the supporting characters: the character of Thérèse herself is inhibited and her thoughts have to be mirrored in her actions and her surroundings whereas the support characters of Bernard, Anne, their parents and servants have to be fairly well developed to demonstrate how provincial 1920s French society acted through different social levels to crush individuals and the effects such repression had on them. In this respect, the film does little with the country scenery to show how confined physically and mentally Thérèse is; and the performances of the actors playing significant support roles are rather mixed. Lelouche does good work in playing Bernard while Demoustier looks perhaps too mentally well-adjusted to play the flighty but uncomplicated Anne.

There is so much Miller could have done with the source material other than serve up the kind of historical soap drama the English used to excel at in novels, films and TV shows: there are inklings in the film that the kind of rural life that limits the Desqueyroux and Larroque families in their thinking and behaviour is actually dying out slowly, that the forests are fragile and the family properties could so easily be destroyed, and Miller could have played these aspects up a bit more. The life that Azevedo could have offered to Anne and of which Thérèse gains a snippet barely rates a mention. I can’t see how Miller couldn’t have departed more from the novel to make the film more relevant to contemporary audiences; had he done so, he might even have drawn more attention to the novel’s concerns. After all, by presenting the narrative in strict chronological story-telling format rather in the form of flashbacks, Miller was already going against the spirit of the novel.

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