Á Double Effet
By the time the New Wave rolled in, the French devotees of Marx and Coca-Cola wanted more from film than Marcel Carné‘s poetic realism, languidly paced and reeking of Romantic pre-war Europe. In 1953, when the Wave was a ripple, Thérèse Raquin seemed like an uninspired drama by the former master director of Les Enfants du Paradis. Thérèse contains elements of then popular crime films, along with melodrama and lower-class laments, but with Carné‘s impassive eye and peculiar performances by Simone Signoret and Sylvie, the movie becomes a sort of neorealistic soap opera.
At the same time, the journalism-influenced scenario of the Emile Zola novel on which Thérèse Raquin is based suits Carné‘s style. Carné transfers the novel’s 19th-century setting to postwar Lyons, where Thérèse (Signoret), miserably married to her sniveling mama’s boy cousin Camille (Jacques Duby), has an affair with his macho truck driver friend Laurent (Raf Vallone). When Camille uncovers the affair, he plans to take Thérèse to Paris, where he’ll lock her up in his aunt’s house so she can “learn what a husband is.” Laurent boards their train and provokes a confrontation with Camille, accidentally killing the husband by pushing him out of the last car. The two lovers initially cover their tracks, but Thérèse suffers under the suspicious glare of Camille’s mother (Sylvie), who is rendered mute by a stroke provoked by the shock of her son’s death.
The movie opens and closes with the same overhead shot of Lyons. Carné, like Zola, emphasizes the ordinary tragedy of desperate city folk. However, Carné‘s characters are not Zola’s active schemers, but victims of fate. The monotony of their life is detailed in Camille’s Thursday night board game sessions and walks along the Rhone; petty indignities in the slurs aimed at Laurent’s Italian background. Poverty has taught these characters to be selfish, but with few opportunities to indulge themselves, they take out their frustrations on others.
A lifetime of repression has left Thérèse perpetually stone-faced. She flirts with an almost imperceptible smile, a minute relaxation in her catholic composure betrays her sexual hunger. When Thérèse expresses the vaguest sort of affection towards Laurent, the stark contrast with her previous demeanor is heartbreaking.
Thérèse is set opposite more colorful characters, primarily Camille’s mother, who wields absolute authority and displays righteous fury. Her screeching voice is not too far removed from that of Norman Bates’ impersonation of his mother, but in her determined, stiff-legged walk and crafty manipulations, she is a pleasure to watch, even when she must, post-stroke, channel all energy to her eyes.
The plot’s predictable thrust is saved by the final act’s introduction of a despicable yet admirable drifter who showcases Carné‘s ability to garner tremendous sympathy for imperfect characters. Arriving at the Raquin doorstep, he attempts to blackmail the couple, claiming he has proof Camille was murdered. A luckless societal outcast, he repeats his sob story that ignored as a child and abused by the army, in hopes the couple will understand his extortion. Otherwise, he is obnoxiously confident, someone who doesn’t know when to shut up. Joking when he should be serious and serious when he should be joking, he’s described by Thérèse as “sneering, with the eyes of a cat looking at a bird.”
As the blackmailer and the lovers head towards their final confrontation, Carné shifts the focus from trite melodrama to an impressionistic portrait of criminality. While the narrative turns more complex, it is also a bit cold, so that the last shot of Lyons reminds us that this was just one sad story of many. The film transfers whatever sympathy we might have had for the characters onto a vague cityscape