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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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Heart Me Up

In defense of Valentine’s Day

 

“be(ing) of love (a little) more careful”—e.e. cummings

Wednesday (Feb. 10) is Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Friday (Feb. 12) is Lincoln’s 207th birthday. Sunday is Valentine’s Day. On Ash Wednesday, with foreheads marked with a cross of ashes, we hear the words, “From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” Reminding us that our bodies, made of matter, will remain here on Earth when we are called back. It is our Soul that will take us home again. Lent offers us 40 days and nights of purification in preparation for the Resurrection (Easter) festival (an initiation) and for the Three Spring Festivals (at the time of the full moon)—Aries, Taurus, Gemini. The New Group of World Servers have been preparing since Winter Solstice. The number 40 is significant. The Christ (Pisces World Teacher) was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights prior to His three-year ministry. The purpose of this desert exile was to prepare his Archangel (light) body to withstand the pressures of the Earth plane (form and matter). We, too, in our intentional purifications and prayers during the 40 days of Lent, prepare ourselves (physical body, emotions, lower mind) to receive and be able to withstand the irradiation of will, love/wisdom and light streaming into the Earth at spring equinox, Easter, and the Three Spiritual Festivals. What is Lent? The Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, comes from an ancient spring festival, agricultural rites marking the transition between winter and summer. The seasons reflect changes in nature (physical world) and humanity responds with social festivals of gratitude and of renewal. There is a purification process, prayerfulness in nature and in humanity in preparation for a great flow of spiritual energies during springtime. Valentine’s Day: Aquarius Sun, Taurus moon. Let us offer gifts of comfort, ease, harmony, beauty and satisfaction. Things chocolate and golden. Venus and Taurus things.

 

The New Tech Nexus

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