After starring in the critically acclaimed, box office hit Amélie, Audrey Tautou became an overnight sensation and one of France’s most popular actresses. From César nominated roles in Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, to starring opposite Tom Hanks in the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code and playing the legendary Coco Chanel (in a performance that earned her a BAFTA nomination), Tautou pretty much became France’s most celebrated young actress.
But the truth is that despite her popularity, she has never been a particularly interesting actress to watch.
In Claude Miller’s Thérèse, she proves this as she plays a bored housewife who is so passive and serene that we are left wondering why she was cast in a role that had the possibility of brimming with salaciousness. Based on the eponymous novel by Nobel Prize winner Francois Mauriac, Thérèse centers on the character played by Tautou, a woman living in the region of Landes who marries into the wealthy Desqueyroux family out of a promise she made.
Her husband, Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), is a proud, arrogant man who seems to care little about anything other than himself, he’s the kind of character who believes the world is a better place because he’s in it. “Eleven thousand acres when we’re married” he suggests to his future wife about the size of his land increasing once their union is formalized.
She confides to her future sister-in-law Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), that she will find solace in marriage because it will put her back on the good path. “When I’m married my ideas will go back in order. I don’t know what order but an order” she says, while the idealistic Anne reminds her that finding peace isn’t interesting.
The film has a severe rhythm problem because time flies by (according to title cards) but we feel like we barely know these people at all. From a hurried marriage straight to maternity, we’re supposed to perceive how much the heroine has changed because everyone around her talks about it, but the actress playing her has little to show for it.
Tautou is perhaps a too internal actress who spends her time turning her character’s dilemmas into complex internal monologues, and while that probably makes for some interesting intellectual discourse, it makes for very poor drama. Trying to figure out what the actress is thinking is frustrating because as audience members we feel completely out of the loop. “One can talk to you, talk about important things” says Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber) about Thérèse, when she meets with him to see if he can convince him to stop his affair with her sister-in-law. Azevedo is a Portuguese Jew disliked by the elitist Desqueyroux family and once again we are left wondering why he thinks that and why he eventually confides in her.
Watching the film most of the time feels like reading a book that doesn’t completely click with us. It’s easy to understand why the story’s moral center is so fascinating and why the novel is so beloved, but the execution of said ideas is done in a way that is both handsome and dull. With stunning cinematography, costume design and art direction—not to mention the handsomeness of its cast—the film should at least be pleasurable to the eye and senses, but when we are reminded that its protagonist is also a self acknowledged hedonist who seeks to enjoy the pleasures in life but represents them with such lack of conviction, we feel like she’s betraying the film itself.
Thérèse turned out to be director Claude Miller’s very last film and as such, one can’t help but wish to be more reverential to it, but the more you think about it, the more impenetrable the film turns out to be. Lellouche turns in the most committed performance as he finds the good in his Bernard, where a lesser actor would’ve turned him into a run of the mill villain, Lellouche takes his time to turn him into a man so complex we understand why he would drive Thérèse to a point of quasi-insanity. He doesn’t play him like a villain or a saint and in a film where everything else seems over calculated to the point where it loses its power and becomes uninteresting to watch, his work feels like a welcome breath of fresh air.
This DVD edition of Thérèse is presented by MPI Pictures with a great transfer that highlights the film’s beauty and truly Gerard de Batista’s work with frames and lighting is astonishing to watch. The film is presented in its original language with optional English subtitles. There are no bonus features included other than a trailer for the film and previews of other coming attractions.