SIFF Film Review – Thérèse
Let’s face it, in a lot of points throughout history, it has sucked to be a woman. Society has been unfair to them, women were often trapped in their stations in life, female choices have at times been virtually non-existent, and self-expression was often viewed by the male-dominated world as a trivial matter. Ladies were often born into a household, expected to grow up a certain way, expected to behave in a certain manner, get married off to a certain type of man, produce suitable offspring, and not have opinions of their own. It’s not that women didn’t have their own hearts and minds, just that they were often trapped.
It is one of these types of traps that is portrayed in Thérèse (based on the French novel Thérèse Desqueyroux), which is premiering locally at the Seattle International Film Festival. Audrey Tautou of Amelie and The Da Vinci Code stars as the titular character. Thérèse is born to a provincial, well-respected family living in the French countryside in the early 20th century. They have a wealth of forest land to their name. As a child, she seems to have a glorious time with her best friend Anne, who lives on a more modest neighboring estate. Genuine affection and love are shared between the two as children. When Thérèse grows up, dutifully she marries Anne’s engagingly out of touch older brother Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), mostly for the financial joining of their two homes. It is a practical joining of fortunes much more than it is an act of falling in love.
But Thérèse is stifled. Periodically we see flashes of her inner thoughts. She has imaginary sequences where she confronts her husband with her true feelings. Another time, as Anne falls in love with a handsome young Jewish man who is mainly interested in her physically but of whom her family disapproves because of his lineage, Thérèse pictures Anne’s passionate love affair. Thérèse also thinks of violently striking out at her husband. But all of that tumult is kept inside. Outwardly, she is extremely controlled. Her cold exterior is a wall she is erecting to the all-too-dull life around her. She even seems to barely register feelings as a mother. Eventually her inner dissatisfaction comes to a breaking point.
Audrey Tautou is quite intriguing throughout the film. Known in the past as a bright, sunny character on screen, to see her transforming herself into a pale, sickly, despairing waif of a woman is quite sad. You can see her thinking, but she becomes so stone-faced on the outside that it demands quite a bit of subtlety from her. The scenes where she doesn’t seem to be connecting with her own child are quite chilling. And while resenting her husband, she doesn’t seem to overtly hate him. She just feels stuck. As her husband, Lellouche is both endearing and repugnant. He is bigoted against the Jews, he is controlling and sometimes violent, and he doesn’t think much of either his wife’s or sister’s opinions. But he also seems to genuinely love Thérèse, he is perfectly happy in his country-style living, and his loyalty to his family name is unflagging. These qualities are much a part of his own downfall.
Thérèse feels quite a bit like a French version of a Merchant-Ivory film: women of a certain caste stuck in passionless circumstances due to their society. This is familiar territory. But as directed by Claude Miller as his last film, it is extremely well acted. This story is proof that the French can suffer just as well as the English. For fans of a certain kind of “hat” drama that is literate and finely performed, Thérèse may be for you.