Monday, August 19, 2013

Claude Miller’s Therese

Thérèse Desqueyroux is not much of a home-maker.  She has servants for that sort of thing.  She is hardly mother of the year either.  She keeps up appearances as a dutiful wife, but she has no love and little respect for her husband.  Yet, embracing the woman of privilege as a feminist icon or a victim of bourgeoisie society is a tricky business.  The infamous protagonist of François Mauriac’s most celebrated novel will confound audiences again in the late Claude Miller’s final film, Thérèse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

At first, the marriage of Thérèse Larroque and Bernard Desqueyroux makes perfect sense, because of their pines.  It is a way to combine the wooded estates of the two land-holding families.  Despite his wealth, her father is something of a leftwinger, which may have contributed to her contrary nature.  You will not find any of that in the rigidly conventional Desqueyroux family.  Alas, Bernard is a better hunter than a husband, but his newlywed wife seems even less interested in their domestic life together.

It turns out Thérèse’s childhood best friend and now sister-in-law has a more idealistic and melodramatic approach to love.  She has fallen for Jean Azevedo, the son of a wealthy local Jewish merchant.  Obviously, he is quite unacceptable to a family concerned about upholding their social standing.  It falls to the new Madame Desqueyroux to deal with this unwanted to suitor, who turns out to be considerably less serious about her sister-in-law than she is about him.  However, he awakens yearnings in Thérèse that only intensify her resentment of her uncouth husband.

A former protégé of Truffaut, Miller was a master of cinematic ambiguity and Thérèse Desqueyroux is a fitting character to grace his cinematic au revoir.  When she attempts to murder Bernard by manipulating his prescribed arsenic drops, her motivations are not entirely clear.  More boorish than brutish in Miller’s adaptation, he is no longer the abusive savage of Mauriac’s novel, but a rather sympathetic fool.  Clearly, the constraints of polite society rankle Mme. Desqueyroux, but they will remain regardless of her husband’s fate.  We have a clear sense the imp of perverse initially spurred her rash behavior, yet she continues her course of action in a coldly calculated manner.

Audrey Tautou’s icy detachment perfectly suits this Desqueyroux.  She is a tragic enigma, jealously guarding her conflicting thoughts and emotions from everyone around her.  In a bizarre case of dramatic jujitsu, Gilles Lellouche nearly steals the picture as Bernard Desqueyroux, who does his duty and keeps a stiff upper lip, because that is what gentlemen do.  His final scenes with Tautou have a finely wrought air of melancholy that come to define the film overall.

Perhaps Mauriac might have taken issue with Miller’s choices, but his Thérèse is a very good film.  It might appear to be a conventional period piece on the surface (especially without the original flashback structure), but its razor sharp portrayal of the dark complexities of human nature distinguishes it from the field.  Recommended for fans of French cinema and literary adaptations, Thérèse opens this Friday (8/23) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.