Gamine and charming Audrey Tautou has been typecast ever since Amélie made her a worldwide star. Adored for being adorable, the actress makes a bold break from her brand as Thérèse Desqueyroux, a scorning woman incommoded by a foolish family and imprisoned by the high society from which she stands apart in her heart. Amélie and the many romantic comedies that followed wore their hearts on their sleeve but Thérèse’s is buried deep in dark secrets, the tormented drama of her life unintelligible to everyone, none more so than herself. Isabelle Huppert would be the obvious choice for this sort of thing, having played more than her fair share of outraged women whose vivid imaginations are stifled by marriage and the Prozac of provincial life. A complete 180 for Tautou, she’s as inspired as she is unexpected in the lead, but that’s exactly what makes her casting so corrosive. The pixie’s pouty overbite appears to quiver like a clenched fist and her perpetually frosted lips turn from sweet to sour, drained of colour and surrounded by visible wrinkles.
Set during the nineteen-twenties, Thérèse’s betrothal to Bernard Desqueyroux is more of a merger than a marriage, a pre-determined conjoining of two neighboring families’ enormous wealth, made off the pine trees that encircle their adjacent estates. Separated by politics, they remain in complete agreement that “life is not worth living if you don’t have land.” For Thérèse, quite the opposite is true, sharing author André Gide’s sentiment that it is “better a pathetic existence than tranquility.” Landed propriety is that from which Thérèse’s family cultivate not only their wealth but also their sense of identity. As a young girl, Thérèse is told by her best friend Anne Desqueyroux that she will marry her brother and it’s a destiny she willingly accepts at first, believing wedded life will save her from the disorder in her head. She soon learns that love can’t be learned and the love that Anne finds with a boy from an extremely wealthy Bordeaux clan (discredited by her parents’ anti-Semitism) is pure, precisely because it is so ignorant of the realities of what’s expected of a wife. Love of any kind isn’t synonymous with peace, and sex is only a duty, not the ideal Anne believes it to be. When Thérèse becomes pregnant, she loses the last scrap of herself to the name she must bear, visible only as a sacred vessel, eating, breathing and existing for two.
Housebound, the unwilling mother is forced to endure her overbearing relatives’ humdrum daily round. Conversation is contained to the weather, gossip and hunting and always avoids the issue of feelings. Chain-smoking a black cloud of discontent, Thérèse dares to express what she really feels rather than what she ought, but is seen as too unbecoming to be taken seriously. Desperate to find her place beyond the pines, she starts fiddling with her ailing husband’s daily dose of arsenic, increasingly reckless in her attempts to poison him and now wearing black in morbid anticipation of the funeral.
When she’s found out and put on trial, Bernard rejects Thérèse outright, but rather than risk public humiliation, he conceives of an alibi with his wife. Thérèse’s bungled crime doesn’t break them apart but binds them closer still, as Bernard attempts to protect the family name and figure out what drove her to mariticide. “You’re nothing anymore, but you still bare my name” he tells her. At one point, UK distributor Artificial Eye wanted to change the name to the singular ‘Thérèse’, partly I suspect so the general public might form vague mental associations with Amélie and also because the last name is difficult to pronounce. But to lop off the surname is to ignore the very thing Thérèse is trapped by and all the limitations it puts on free thought and adventurous experience she craves.
Hardly an oppressive ogre, when Bernard finally plucks up the nerve to ask why she did it, his mystification and expectation of a simple motive reveals him to be a mismatched simpleton who still loves her dearly. Gilles Lellouche approaches the part from the same tragic perspective as Thérèse, rendering Bernard far more sympathetic than he is in François Mauriac’s classic source novel. In an equally moving piece of acting by Ms Tautou, Thérèse clutches at straws for an answer before settling on the predictability of Bernard’s character: knowing what he thinks of everything before he’s thought it and always been able to explain why he does what he does. Thérèse may not be able to fathom her reasons, but I’ll wager it’s the same reason most of us act out in ways we can’t explain; fear of loneliness. Thérèse by her nature was never a Desqueyroux and playing at happy families was to consign herself to a lifetime of loneliness.
The stream of consciousness aspect of the novel that attempts to unpack Thérèse’s behavior is perfectly put across by Tautou, who is inquisitive at the same time as being clinically depressed. Every varied grimace endlessly elaborates the meaning of Thérèse’s actions, and she remains a fascinatingly unknowable femme fatale. The sweltering haze of Gérard de Battista’s cinematography is exquisite in its period detail, but also the way the lighting captures an interior state of mind and sense of suffocation. The couple’s Black Forrest Hotel honeymoon and the train back to Bordeaux, lit by gas lamp, are frames encroached by a black gulf — the gulf between Thérèse’s complex passions and her complete indifference to the life she married into.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 14, 2013