Film Title: Thérèse Desqueyroux
Director: Claude Miller
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Gilles Lellouche, Anaïs Demoustier, Catherine Arditi
Running Time: 110 min
If the final film from Claude Miller achieves anything, it will surely send viewers back to the François Mauriac novel on which it’s based. This should not be seen as an unqualified compliment.
Thérèse Desqueyroux points up the book’s sociological insights – proto-feminist observations on marriage as indentured slavery – and then suffocates them in an excess of luscious period detail. You’d prefer the film a tad less pretty, a little less cosy, somewhat less sumptuous. Something ruder is trying to break out.
We begin in classic top-end French period bliss. Two gamines are contemplating the future in an idyllic corner of the southwest. One, Thérèse, grows up to be sour Audrey Tautou and to marry the other’s conventional, uninteresting brother. The second girl, Anne, becomes fey Anaïs Demoustier and falls disastrously for a Jewish neighbour.
While acting as a go-between, Thérèse becomes interested in the young man, but he eventually drifts (somewhat puzzlingly) into the background and the two women set off on divergent paths. Anne eventually gets over her crush. Thérèse settles down to life with her pudding of a husband. But there’s a Chekovian rifle on the wall (the sort that always gets fired in the third act). M Desqueyroux is taking arsenic drops for a heart complaint. It is fair to assume that he’ll soon be taking more than he might like.
Tautou suppresses her chipmunk instincts to deliver a performance that has some rare astringency to it. Gilles Lellouche brings impressive balance to Thérèse’s husband: he manages to make him irritating without turning him into any kind of monster.
But this well-turned-out film, shot in rich shades by Gérard de Battista, does feel worryingly short on psychological development. For no sound reason Thérèse suddenly turns from grump to anti-patriarchal avenger. The nuances are, one assumes, lurking in the novel. Which is where we came in.