Aristocratic Society is the Burden of Strong Minded ‘Thérèse Desqueyroux’

François Mauriac’s most famous 1927 novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux (2012), comes to life in Claude Miller’s final film before his death. The French drama, starring Audrey Tautou, begins strong however it reaches a poisonous end.

The opening few shots of Thérèse Desqueyroux display a forest of pine trees. This poignant and peaceful space is destined to become the bane of our protagonists’ lives in future years. It almost seems that this picturesque view is a painting, because it remains so still. However, the setting brims with life when two young energetic girls peddle gracefully onto the frame on their bikes.

Thérèse Desqueyroux (Audrey Tautou) and Anne de la Trave (Ana Demoustier) are two close, neighbouring friends with very different personalities. Already at a young age Thérèse is presented as someone lost in her own thoughts. She is mature beyond her years as she reads for pleasure, takes care of her deaf aunt, and understands that she can’t escape a future of marriage and parenthood. Her sad stares throughout this childhood sequence are one of the fundamental traits that carry on with her during the next decade. Whereas the younger of the two girls, Anne, is more naïve to what is expected of her in this bourgeois high society lifestyle.

The film primarily seems like a world of opportunity where there are many themes that the story can explore. For example, the cinematography implies that a secret romance is brewing between Thérèse and Anne when the film transgresses a few years on since their childhood years. Thérèses’ sexuality is brought into question when she woefully stares at Anne, refers to her as ‘my girlfriend’, and most critically burns a photograph of the man Anne has fallen in love with. The theme of sexuality or a blossoming lesbian relationship could have been explored further, yet this idea is dropped.

Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber) is introduced to us as an opportunist seeking a steamy love affair. Azevedo is the handsome young man who steals Anne’s heart. Alas, their relationship is doomed to fail because he is presumed to be Jewish, thus, he is an outsider that Anne’s elite family will not tolerate. Thérèse becomes jealous of Anne as she realises that her life could have been entirely different if she didn’t feel pressured to conform to society. When she eventually meets the mysterious Azevedo, it’ clear that they share a passion for the life of the mind, and both believe in living without restraints. This opens the door for another romance.

Sadly, similar to Anne, this love interest is quickly dropped and the story moves on as if it never existed. When both attempts at romance fade from our screen, we are left with a self-deprived bitter woman who revels in self-pity. She doesn’t want to be with the man she married. She felt she had to marry him — and his money — because of her father’s wishes to keep this privileged way of life.

The fateful words of Anne when they were children: “Know what everyone says? My brother’ll marry you in a few years’ time,” unsurprisingly come true when Thérèse fianly enters married life. Gilles Lellouche portrays Thérèses’ husband Bernard Desqueyroux, and although he is not unkind or remarkably faulty, he does not fulfill the excitement and understanding that Thérèse longs for. Instead of marriage bringing the new sister-in-laws closer together; they become disjointed, with both characters turning hateful toward one another.

From this point on the drama slows, as Thérèse impulsively creates a menacing exit from her marriage, although the method she employs is painfully predictable to the audience as it has been foreshadowed through cinematography on our screens.

Tautou tends to act in more quirky and upbeat films, so her portrayal of Thérèse showcases her ability to change acting styles.Here, she gracefully swallows up the grief of this tormented character and makes her grow dark and empty.

Thérèse continuously comments that she thinks too much, that she is scared of not being able to falls asleep because of her thoughts. We do see this at times when she’s left gazing into space whilst her husband unknowingly torments her by sleeping peacefully. However, the film doesn’t delve into what Thérèse is thinking about during such sleepless nights, so we are left to speculate.

Alas, what ultimately shapes Thérèse remains unknown. We’re aware that she doesn’t fit in amongst the status quo environment of wealthy rural France; she’s more suited to the radical opinions of those based in central Paris. Although the film tries to immerse us in Thérèse’s disconnection from the world, we are unable to see past the mist of cigarette smoke that shrouds our character in metaphorical mystery.

The DVD release of Thérèse Desqueyroux offers a “Memories of Filming” featurette and a trailer. The featurette gives us behind-the-scenes access to the cast and crew filming certain scenes.

Miller brings us close to the presence of Thérèse, if you will, yet we feel always at a safe distance. We watch her, and only her, as she imagines herself committing suicide and almost evaporates into a numb fragile body. Thérèse Desqueyroux could have been a sweet elegant romance; instead it’s a crumbling examination of a woman who wants to escape from a world that has been awaiting her since birth.

RATING 6 / 10