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CANNES – A Polished period piece adapted from a French literary classic, Thérèse Desqueyroux has been selected to close the official selection at the Cannes film festival, partly in homage to its late director Claude Miller. A former assistant to various Gallic cinema legends including Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, Miller died in April. His 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.
Based on the best-known novel by future Nobel Prize-winner François Mauriac, which was first published in 1927, the story unfolds among the land-owning Catholic families who owe their historic wealth to the vast pine forests around Bordeaux in southwest France. Tautou plays Thérèse, a complex and frustrated young woman born in the wrong time and place. A prototype feminist before the term was in common currency, she is effectively married off in her late teens to the chauvinistic and casually anti-Semitic scion of another local bourgeois dynasty, Bernard Desqueyroux (Lellouche), soon falling pregnant with their baby daughter Marie.
Buried in the boondocks, married alive, Thérèse vainly yearns of escape to a bohemian life in jazz-age Paris. After accidentally discovering that Bernard’s daily heart medicine contains arsenic, she starts to discreetly increase the dose, more out of bitter provincial frustration than serious homicidal intent. But when Bernard almost dies, his young wife is exposed and faces potential murder charges. The families close ranks to save face, agreeing a fanciful defence to keep Thérèse from jail, but the price she pays is imprisonment and isolation at home. Wasting away, forbidden to see her daughter, her emotional state starts to crack.
Considering its time-tested importance in the canon of 20th century French literature, it is perhaps surprising that Thérèse Desqueyroux has been filmed just once before, 50 years ago, by Georges Franju. Best known for his arty psycho-horror classic Eyes Without a Face, Franju’s version of this story was more stylised and less staid than Miller’s, with a simmering undercurrent of repressed sexuality. Indeed, Miller’s straight chronological treatment is more conventional even than Mauriac’s novel, which is told in non-linear flashback from the court case.
Tautou is suitably intense as the chain-smoking Thérèse, a frequently selfish and heartless femme fatale that both Mauriac and Miller somehow still make sympathetic. Lellouche is also a good fit for Bernard, a priggishly conservative man who nevertheless emerges from his near-fatal ordeal with more warmth and understanding for his unhappy wife.
A few minor subplots are underplayed from the novel, notably the erotically charged relationship between Therese and her childhood friend Anne de la Trave (Demoustier), a delicate power balance which shifts as they enter adulthood. But otherwise Miller sticks faithfully to the book’s key events and general tone of nuanced, non-judgmental empathy. A classic story competently told, Thérèse Desqueyroux is chocolate-box heritage cinema at heart, but a perfectly respectable and emphatically French epitaph to Miller’s long career. (end)
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