Thérèse Desqueyroux: of social constraints and poison
by Fabien Lemercier
26/05/2012 - "I am marrying you a little bit for your pines. I know it’s bad, but property is in my blood." In 1928, in the French Landes, Thérèse and Bernard’s wedding unites two rich families from the region, and the young couple take on an estate of 4,500 hectares of pine forest. But the period’s oppressive bourgeois conventions will soon suffocate the bride, "a girl who thinks too much”, "too strong a spirit", and eventually lead her to commit a crime. Adapted from the novel of the same name by François Mauriac, Thérèse Desqueyroux [trailer], a film that will tomorrow close the 65th Cannes Film Festival out of competition, allows Audrey Tautou and Gilles Lellouche to shine in dramatic roles that one rarely sees them in. But the film especially gives great homage to its director, the late (news) Claude Miller, a defender of good quality European films.
A short prologue introduces two teenagers (Thérèse and Anne), flitting around happily in the summer heat and the comfort of their social environment (huge houses in the middle of the Landes countryside), even if Thérèse thinks hunting is disgusting and prefers reading instead. The film then moves on to the young woman (Audrey Tautou)’s wedding six years later to the very well brought-up Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), a man who likes the simple pleasures in life. Thérèse, however, hides a very vibrant inner life under a serious and cold exterior ("There are a lot of things in my head, that’s what scares me."). On their honeymoon in Baden Baden, she turns out to be totally unmoved by carnal pleasure and starts to dream about escaping her reality (by running away or committing suicide). Her secret despair is rendered even more acute when her step-sister (Anaïs Demoustier) becomes infatuated with a handsome student, Jean Azevedo. This relationship is perceived as crazy by the Desqueyroux family both because her marriage has already been planned to someone else and because they suspect he is Jewish ("They swear that they’re not Israelites, but as soon as you see them, you get it," raves Bernard). Pushed to betray Anne, through loyalty to the family and maybe because she is jealous of this pure love, Thérèse will slowly descend into despair. She does not take on her role of a mother after the birth of her first child, and acts on an impulse to poison her husband with arsenic. When she is found out and handed over to the police, her husband will try, despite everything, to understand why she did it…
A beautiful portrait of a woman torn between her intellectual nature and the conventions imposed on her by society (a docile wife, a loving mother, a pragmatic woman), Thérèse Desqueyroux very justly depicts the wall of silence built up by things left unsaid ("We get on very well here, covering up the dirt on carpets") and the shadow cast on a spirit that feels trapped and enslaved in a life that is pre-planned. Claude Miller (who co-wrote the screenplay with Nathalie Carter) has subtly developed this very dark psychological drama, in which his main actress and his great directing both shine.
(Translated from French)