François Mauriac’s legendary 1927 novel of French provincial life has been gloriously brought to the screen by the inestimable Claude Miller in his final film Thérèse. Sumptuously photographed to capture the full beauty of the pine-forested Landes area in southwest France, Thérèse is a beautifully conceived drama of exquisite taste. Marvelously played by the luminous Audrey Tautou, Thérèse is a heroine hewn from the same stock as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, suffocated by her provincial marriage.
Thérèse has married less for love than for convenience, but it is not long before the casual disinterestedness shown her by her arrogant husband, Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), sets her mind in motion. Life is easy at first, as Bernard’s pinewood estates keep them both in the lap of luxury. But when Thérèse’s best friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), who also happens to be Bernard’s younger sister, falls madly in love with a handsome young Portuguese man, Thérèse begins to see what she has been missing in her life. Corralled by Bernard’s family into persuading Anne to forego her planned nuptials, she begins to see first-hand the awesome power of passionate love, as Anne will go to any length to keep her lover by her side. Soon, Thérèse begins her own fight against the oppressive Desqueyroux family.
This was such a great film, and I simply love Tautou, who portrays a woman who is more in love with her husband’s social standing than with her husband as a man. As their marriage begins, I don’t think that it’s emotionally balanced. And what begins as a relationship between Anne and her boyfriend transforms into an “out” for Thérèse. As she becomes more and more involved in letters between Anne and her suitor, she also becomes more aware of her boring, disconnected surroundings and relationship with her husband.
After a while and after bearing an infant daughter, I believe Thérèse suffers from postpartum depression, and her life and relationships with her husband and her family spiral downward. She becomes so disenchanted and isolated that she seems to have a leave of reality and begins to “over medicate” her husband. He becomes ill, and many believe that she was trying to eliminate him from her life. Now, it is never mentioned or intimated in the movie that Thérèse is interested in any other man—her interest in her sister-in-law’s boyfriend is something that is handled from afar—so I didn’t think she wanted to find love with someone else. It may have been the thought that Anne was fighting against odds to have a truly fulfilled, loving relationship that tips the scales for Thérèse. But she goes all the way to the other side, and her life just disintegrates in front of her eyes. Thérèse is such a heartstopper, and to watch her go from elegant to just a shell of herself—all sullen and ashen—is just unsettling.
Press materials say, “Miller makes the novel fully his own, floating his camera through the refined and cushioned rooms of the family’s estate and the magnificent outdoor vistas of the Landes countryside, capturing all the nuances of this battle of wills. But, finally, the film belongs to Tautou, who conveys all the inflections of hurt and pain, love and sorrow, demanded of her. After Amélie, Tautou has found a role that does full justice to her talents.”
Thérèse opens New York in theaters on August 23.