Film Review: Therese

Claude Miller’s final film is a sheer masterwork, one of the greatest literary adaptations in screen memory.

Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary bears a strong resemblance to Francois Mauriac’s lesser-known (but still taught in French schools) Thérèse Desqueyroux; each has a nonconformist heroine trapped in a stifling bourgeois marriage and committing outrageous deeds in an attempt to escape. Many screen adaptions of the Flaubert have been made by the eminent likes of Renoir, Minnelli and Chabrol, but none has been as successful as Claude Miller’s version of Mauriac. This was the director’s swan song, before his death in 2012, and I cannot think of a more glorious way to go out than with this exquisitely rendered, near-perfect and definitively French film.

Audrey Tautou plays Thérèse, the tragically smart girl who marries Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), thinking that his vast pinewood holdings, big house and close-knit family will make the perfect life, and it’s as if we have never seen this actress before. It’s a role Bette Davis would have killed for, with its suffocating repression that erupts in the rashest of acts when Thérèse decides to poison him. She does this not for the love of another man or out of any particular homicidal pathology within herself, and that is the brilliance of Mauriac, making her that rare truly existential heroine, which Miller—and Tautou—capture with sublime acuity and tact.

For years now, Tautou has been the very definition of gamine, especially in the diabetically winsome and popular Amélie, something she couldn’t shed even when taking on the strong character of Coco Chanel. However, in this film, she has shed all precocious prettiness, presenting what amounts to a searingly intense deadpan for most of the movie that is absolutely riveting. Yes, Thérèse is a complete enigma, a seething volcano which never really gets to explode, but such is Tautou’s total, preternatural immersion in and identification with the role that she is never a bore or a blank; you are with her all the way. Thérèse’s misfortune is that she is a woman both ahead and out of her time, perhaps an artist without a calling. Motherhood is something to which she is completely indifferent and, smokily puffing away and ignoring her crying daughter, Tautou makes you feel every dissatisfied nerve of her being.

Lellouche is also terrific, actually humanizing Mauriac’s Bernard with all of his ingrained machismo and conforming stuffiness, a strong—and eventually destructive—equal to Thérèse. Their scenes offer a chilling, fully realized portrait of a bad marriage, yet their final one together has the piercing quality of heartbreak, with Bernard accepting a fate every bit as lonely, but probably far more empty than his disgraced wife’s. (Tautou’s face at the very end, as she walks the streets of Paris, finally free, rivals Garbo’s in Queen Christina for richly interpretative potency.)

Everything else about Thérèse is nigh flawless. There are the miraculously well-cast performances of the wonderfully doughty Catherine Arditi as Bernard’s proper bigot of a mother, Isabelle Sadoyan—like a Gallic version of the great Elizabeth Patterson—as his servile maiden aunt, and lovely Anaïs Demoustier as his sister Anne, whose thwarted love for a rich neighboring Jew, Jean Acevedo (Stanley Weber), really incites Thérèse’s instinct to rebel. The film is also incredibly beautiful to look at, from the delicious red of the sail of Acevedo’s skiff against a sapphire sea, which seems to symbolize all the passion lacking in the Desqueyroux family, to the bedroom where Thérèse is banished, like a Vuillard come to life. Mathieu Alvado’s spare music score has a pristine subtlety to it, chosen, as was every gorgeously apropos detail here, by a master filmmaker who can surely rest in peace, having made his final, and greatest, work.