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Pining Away

film ThereseTatou shines as pre-feminist desperate housewife in 'Thèrése'

Audrey Tatou continues to grow in complexity onscreen. In the handsome and elegantly mounted period drama, Thèrése, the former Amelie gamine stars as a young woman entangled in bourgeois dynastic obligations in the southwest French countryside in the 1920s. It's a part that calls for brisk intelligence, but not much warmth, quiet desperation, and a soupçon of cold fury, and Tatou plays every note with striking precision.

The final offering from the late French filmmaker Claude Miller, the film is adapted from the 1927 novel, “Thèrése Desqueyroux,” by Francois Mauriac. (Miller co-wrote the screenplay with Natalie Carter.) Although the novel was written long before modern notions of feminism had gained much currency, its portrait of a woman trapped in an ill-fitting social role continues to have resonance today.

As young girls, Thèrése and her best friend, Anne, grow up as best friends in adjoining estates nestled in a vast pine forest outside of Bordeaux. Anne is active, uncomplicated, "simple;" Thèrése always has her nose in a book. Everyone assumes that Thèrése will marry Anne's older brother, Bernard Desqueyroux, uniting the families' properties, and so it comes to pass—although his mother (the great Catherine Arditi) worries that Thèrése "thinks too much." Thèrése (now played by Tatou) jokes to Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) that she's marrying him for his pines; theirs is not a love match, but she tells Anne (played as an adult by Anais Demoustier) she hopes marriage will "save" her and put the chaotic ideas in her head into some kind of order.

But marriage to fond, pompous Bernard is hardly salvation. Uninterested in him physically, yet rushed into motherhood, she finds herself confined, not liberated, by her wifely duties. Nor does Anne's heedless affair with another dashing young neighbor inspire Thèrése to stray; she's merely jealous that her friend can so easily find a way to be happy. Oppressed by every aspect of her life, Thèrése begins to take a perverse interest in the arsenic-laced medicinal drops Bernard takes for his health. When he's diagnosed with arsenic poisoning, an investigation is conducted, but the family—including Bernard—rallies around Thèrése (to her dismay), suffocating her even more completely in their determination to avoid a public scandal.

If the novel had been written, say, half a century earlier, this would be a very different scenario. Viewers expecting a conventional morality play a la Anna Karenina, say, complete with passionate awakening and forbidden love affair, may be surprised at the way these events play out. Thèrése doesn't need to be awakened; she's looking for a way to channel her existing emotional and intellectual energies into a meaningful life, but is profoundly uninspired by the bourgeois roles open to her.

Sprinkled here and there throughout the film are brief, unsettling fantasies in which Thèrése imagines taking desperate measures to protest her situation. (No spoilers here; they're so skillfully woven into the fabric of the narrative they deserve to sneak up on you.) When she is finally driven to act out in fact, for reasons she can't even articulate to herself, her actions are not sympathetic, yet we feel the tragedy that she has only succeeded in drawing the prison bars more tightly around herself.

Not every aspect of the storytelling works. (Thèrése's apparent pain when the family separates her from her child would be more effective if she had shown any interest in the baby from the outset.) But Miller has a flair for adroit narrative composition, from vast expanses of pine forests whose iron-gray trunks suggest prison bars, to the ponderous, measured tread with which Thèrése is lock-stepped to the altar, echoed when she marches away from the druggist's shop, and descends the stairs for a shocking last family gathering. Meanwhile, the subtle '20s ambience of clothing, cloche hats and cigarettes is deftly juxtaposed against stately centuries-old manor houses and grounds, and such rich details as a bucket brigade of horse-drawn fire wagons sent to quell a blaze. It all adds up to an engrossing portrait of psychological turmoil in an era of simmering cultural upheaval. 


THÈRÉSE ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Audrey Tatou, Gilles Lellouche, and Anais Demoustier. Written by  Claude Miller and Natalie Carter. From the novel by Francois Mauriac. Directed by Claude Miller. An MPI Media release.  Not rated. 110 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

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