French director Claude Miller (The Best Way to Walk, Un Secret) age 70, passed away shortly after completing this film. Based on the novel by Francois Muriac, the film is more typically English than French. What I mean by that is that it is a period piece that is calm, elegant and filled with plenty of language. It is not the type of film that is going to attract the Twilight crowd. Miller’s film is for a mature adult audience.
Based on a true story and set mostly in the 1920s around the Bordeaux area, Thérèse Larroque and Anne Desqueyroux are best friends. They both come from rich families that own plenty of land and pine trees. The two girls spend their time together riding their bikes, sleeping in the son, reading, and talking. One of the things they do talk about is how Thérèse is going to marry Anne’s older brother, Bernard, in a few years.
Dial forward a couple of years and this does happen. Thérèse (Audrey Tautou – Amélie, The DaVinci Code) is up front with Bernard (Gilles Lellouche – Tell No One, Mesrine: Part 1 – Killer Instinct) in telling him right before they get married that she is doing it for the land. Unlike many marriages of the period where when the couple gets to know each other a little better after marriage they grow to love one another, this never does happen for Thérèse. She is a little different from most women of her social stature and time in that she is a thinker. Thérèse always has something on her mind and she hopes that marrying Bernard would clear her mind a little.
That never happens either and actually her mind becomes busier. So much so that her reactions to simple everyday things are way off. For instance, she becomes incredibly jealous when her best friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier – Elles) falls for the boy (Stanley Weber – from the television series The Borgias) next door. Instead of supporting her in this love she falls in line with the Desqueyrouxs, who have already “arranged” a marriage for Anne with a more “suitable” match than the Portuguese she has fallen head over heels for. Thérèse tells Anne one thing to her face and does another behind her back. It is almost as if the repressed life of a woman in her situation has sucked all the emotion out of her.
Thérèse’s behaviour becomes more and more strange until she does something that proves that she is devoid of emotion and probably losing her mind.
Miller’s film was chosen to close the Official Selection portion of the Cannes film festival and instead of being a glossy film this is a rather sober piece. Without the pedigree of director Miller and the literary association of the novel this film would be largely overlooked. A film about an early feminist type who is rich and feels repressed about her lot in life then doubly trapped when she becomes pregnant right away. It is hard to like a heroine who is basically uncaring.
What eventually does make us care about her and her situation is the nuanced performance that Tautou gives and the space that director Miller gives her to flesh out the character. That kind of space and time is unusual in today’s fast paced, bing bang boom world of cinema. Her character is built upon looks and gestures rather than action. You have to be patient in order to reap the rewards, but if you are patient there will be a payoff.
Though Miller is faithful to the Muriac novel he does make the story his own. He even alters the ending a little rewarding his heroine for the repression of her life by allowing her to escape to Paris. Tautou demonstrates the width and breadth of her talent with this character. Thérèse is a complex character and she is up to the challenge. Let’s hope that it finds an audience which is equally up to the challenge.