Therese Desqueyroux

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest (Out of Competition, Closing Night)–A story documenting the tragic consequences of a woman’s heedless and impulsive act to liberate herself from a numbing existence, Claude Miller’s posthumous “Therese Desqueyroux” is a just and fitting epitaph of his long and storied career.

It is also a symptomatic work, marking his strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Like many of the director’s work (“Class Trip,” “A Secret“), the movie is impeccably made and impressively staged. It shows a keen intelligence and gift for actors. Unfortunately, it is also a bit bloodless and dramatically inert that has moments of clarity and dramatic revelation but they prove too isolated.

Adapted from the identically titled 1927 novel by Francois Mauriac, Miller’s film was presented as the closing night film of the Cannes Film festival. (French director Jacques Audiard dedicated his new film, “Rust and Bone,” to Miller, who died earlier this year after an illness).

The movie‘s debilitating subject proved a harsh parallel to its making. “The fact that I was ill probably creates a sense of melancholy,” he said. Miller’s career was an impressive one and he started out as an assistant to Robert Bresson, Jacques Demy and most memorably, Francois Truffaut.

His new film unfolds almost entirely in the Landes region near Bordeaux. Apart from a prologue, set in 1922, the story is set between 1928-1931. In the opening, two vivacious teenaged girls, playful and energetic, romp around in the massive space and open air of a beautiful French chateau. The moment ends on a tease, with one girl telling the other, word has it she is destined to marry her brother.

The milieu is the landed gentry of the French upper classes, where arranged marriages are common in order to consolidate land holdings and merge commercial interests. In this new adaptation (Georges Franju made an earlier version in 1962), the young heiress Therese (Audrey Tautou), lives with her elderly aunt Clara (Isabelle Sadoyan) in the family’s large and well-appointed estate.

She is a complicated, contradictory woman who is at once intellectual, an avid reader and proto-feminist who also maintains a traditional respect for institution and order. As such, she willingly submits to the personal and business overtures of Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche).

Holding her strong attachment to her sister-in-law Anne (Anais Demoustier), Therese flits between both worlds and draws on her wealth to inoculate her own avant-garde attitudes and willful independence. Her unorthodox feelings bring about a certain tension with her new family. Even Bernard’s mother objects to her son’s marriage to a woman holding more property.

The wedding is beautiful though stark and cold, a quietly acknowledged foreboding of Therese’s sadly benumbing existence. What becomes almost immediately is that her wealth and privilege still relegate her to a secondary status. The birth of her daughter hardly ameliorates her quiet suffering and disappointment. Therese only becomes more distraught after she intervenes on Anne’s behalf with a dashingly and devastatingly handsome young man (Stanley Weber) on the younger couple’s ill-starred love affair.

Suffocated by social convention, Therese, like Emma Bovary, takes measures into her own hands and begins surreptitiously poisoning her husband, overdosing his drinks with his own heart medication. As Bernard’s health significantly worsens, her plan is foiled after a doctor accuses her of falsifying his signature in order to obtain additional supplies of the heart drug.

She is exonerated of a criminal inquiry, largely because of Bernard’s perjured testimony, but he extracts his own draconian response, effectively isolated her in a single room, at the estate and withholding her from her daughter. The balance of the movie tracks her slow and steady disintegration.

“Therese Desqueyroux” is suffused with a bleak downward trajectory that is sharply rendered though somewhat dramatically familiar. Where there is little to outwardly object, the movie is like the times it illustrates, conventional and tidy. The normally radiant Tautou plays a far different register, sad, distant and lonely, and she carries off adequately, but the performance is fairly self-contained and interior and it never becomes explosive or unpredictable. Likewise, Lellouche is a strong presence but also stodgy and unexciting.

Demoustier gives the most exciting performance, lively and colorful, rude and impulsive, and that is the kind of nervous, hot-wired energy the movie could certain use more of. Visually, the movie is certainly well shot (by Gerard de Battista), but the movie is becalming rather than pungent. Therese experiences hallucinations of release and freedom until the material world comes crashing down.

Whenever it appears to break free, the serious, solemn subject imposes its own harsh rules. Even so, it is a movie worth seeing, part of Claude Miller’s strong and distinguished body of work.