A sumptuous adaptation of François Mauriac’s novel, Claude Miller’s final film Thérèse Desqueyroux makes murder most torrid.
The Place Beyond The Pines by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on François Mauriac’s most famous novel and already France’s second filmed adaptation after Georges Franju’s 1962 version starring Emmanuelle Riva and Philippe Noiret, Thérèse Desqueyroux is a slightly outdated exposé of the choices available to women in the first half of the 20th century. Well, in fact there’s only one and that is making a good marriage – and the choice is whether it’s for money or love. With Emmanuelle Riva in the role, you can see the distant self-possessed and dark intelligence, but Audrey Tautou is working hard to overcome the legacy of Amélie, building on her britched Coco in Coco Before Chanel to embody a black-hearted woman trapped on all sides. It’s Claude Miller’s last film and while Thérèse Desqueyroux‘s ungainly anachronism in the 21st century can’t quite be ironed out, it’s a ravishing film of vibrant colour and gleaming beauty.
Landes, south west France, 1922. Childhood friends Anne (Anaïs Demoustier) and Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) are neighbours, both from rich families who own large swathes of land with acres of pine trees. In a bid to free herself from her dark thoughts, and romantically uninspired, except for her close friendship with Anne, Thérèse makes a good marriage to Anne’s brother Bernard (Gilles Lellouche). But before long, Anne falls head-over-heels in love with handsome Jewish yachtsman Azevedo (Stanley Weber), which throws Thérèse sideways. Thérèse is called upon by the Desqueyroux family to disentangle Anne from this passionate but futureless affair, but despite their gratitude it’s an act from which her friendship with Anne never recovers. Alone and pregnant, Thérèse starts to feel trapped in her loveless marriage and makes desperate plans for escape.
With a dazzling palette of deep greens, glowing golds and flush reds, Thérèse Desqueyroux is a sumptuous feast, with all the sun-kissed colours of a Cézanne painting. Ensconced for the most part within a pine forest, its air resinous and scented, Les Landes is a perfectly fine place to live a “nice little provincial life” of inherited wealth and family dinners, following country pursuits of hunting and fishing. But certainly not the place to plot a husband’s murder. Like its intense sun and dark shadows, this is a place of simple, monochrome morality. And while an adulterous affair in the vein of Les Amants might scandalise the catholic, conservative parish, there’s a feeling that it might still be preferable to Thérèse’s internal struggles and unnatural lack of maternal feeling.
It’s unclear if Thérèse’s emotional maelstrom is due to an unspoken love for Anne – she’s never quite as happy once their childhood friendship is fractured by husbands and lovers. And her equanimity towards marrying Bernard seems to be an indifference towards men and husbands in general, never really hopeful of a happier or more passionate match. The only wind in her sails are the red canvases of Azevedo’s boat, and she does appear to fall briefly for the lothario’s charms. Whether it’s the Jewish yachtsman’s good looks or a fascination with the body that has achieved an intimacy with Anne Thérèse can never know remains a mystery. But a year on, Thérèse does not return for her tryst with Azevedo, her inner turmoil rooted in an envious distraction with Anne’s capacity for love. Thérèse attempts to stop her ears with remembered marriage vows and the strong arms of her doltish husband, but it’s futile. And despite her fashionable attire, she remains at odds with her bright surroundings, cast into darkness by an inner gloom.
Trapped by wifedom and motherhood, Thérèse finds life dull, tarnished by the mundane simplicity of husband and child. And it’s in the gap between her social position as mother and wife and her dreams – her underused business mind and her unfulfilled hankering for a masculine kind of agency – that her murderous intentions find sustenance. Her attempt to kill Bernard with an overdose of arsenic drops is too ill thought out to be rooted in hatred, and all Thérèse can admit to is to wanting to see confusion and curiosity in his eyes. Like her dreams of setting the pines on fire, it’s a violent will to destroy the status quo – husband, wealth, society, even her own reputation, in the hope something better will spring up from the ashes. Ravishingly beautiful and with great performances from both Tautou and Lellouche, Claude Miller’s last film remains true to Mauriac’s novel in its enigmatic opaqueness. Thérèse Desqueyroux, with its social and psychological subtleties, reveals little about the world we live in now. But it’s an exquisite reminder of the destructive impulse within that continues to resist explanation.
Thérèse Desqueyroux is released on 7th June 2013 in the UK