Sunday 22 April 2018

Therese's tale of lonely marriage

Paul Whitington

Film Review: Therese Desqueyroux (12A, limited release, 110 minutes) 4 STARS

Director: Claude Miller Stars: Audrey Tautou, Gilles Lellouche, Francis Perrin, Anais Demoustier

A disciple of François Truffaut, Claude Miller made films slowly and carefully, favouring precision over productivity. At the time of his death in April of last year, he was still adding the finishing touches to this austere period drama based on the 1920s novel by François Mauriac.

It's one of Miller's best films, and gets to the heart of Mauriac's chilling psychological tale by departing from the novel's forbidding chronological schema.

Mauriac's book starts, as it were, at the end, with his anti-heroine Thérèse Desqueyroux on trial for the attempted murder of her husband, Bernard.

But Miller's adaptation begins instead in Thérèse's youth, and slowly and skillfully builds a compelling picture of her contradictory character.

In this he's helped hugely by the performance of Audrey Tautou, looking dowdier than usual if that's the right word for someone so beautiful, and letting us know straight away through gesture and demeanour that there's something not quite right about Thérèse.

The daughter of a landed gent with political ambitions, Thérèse is raised in the gloomy pine forests of the Landes region, and groomed from an early age for marriage into the Desqueyroux family, a prominent local dynasty. Anne Desqueyroux (Anais Demoustiers) was her best friend growing up, and Thérèse at first is not unhappy about the idea of marrying Anne's elder brother Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), a bluff but good-natured country gent.

But almost as soon as they marry Thérèse realises she's made a terrible mistake. She's a woman of ideas, who reads voraciously and confronts the latest philosophies and has little time for the strictures of the Catholic Church, to which Bernard mournfully adheres.

Miller's last film is constructed with commendable rigour and focus: neither sentimentalising nor demonising Thérèse, he paints instead a complex picture of a modern women trapped in an airless, joyless marriage, and also manages to tease out the tenderness and bitterness of the Desqueyrouxs' ill-fated union.

Lellouche is excellent as the doughty Bernard, who thinks that sticking to tradition is the answer to everything until he realises the kind of woman he's married.

Thérèse Desqueyroux moves slowly through the seasons and uses the desolate emptiness of the Landes landscape to emphasise Thérèse's loneliness.

If she is lonely so is her husband, and our sympathy for both characters is cleverly evoked in a touching final scene.

In recent years Tautou has appeared in a string of watchable enough romantic comedies, but seems much more at home with this kind of meaty role, and is wonderful as a woman who's hard to like, and even harder to understand.

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