Errant women in 19th-century literature seldom fare well, with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary rebelling against social and gender tyranny with disastrous consequences. By the next century one would think that the situation might improve, and that seems to be the case in the late Claude Miller’s adaptation of François Mauriac’s 1927 novel, “Thérèse.” The loveless marriage, bourgeois mores, even the desperate remedy of arsenic (no train, though) all play a part here, recalling those two earlier masterpieces. But both the outcome and the heroine’s motives in Miller’s inert film remain ambiguous, or maybe just empty. The film looks great, boasting all the elegant period details that are expected in tasteful French adaptations of treasured national literature, with beautifully photographed Bordeaux landscapes and luxurious interiors. As for the human element, however, the mood is more apathetic than tragic.
Despite winning points for trying to stretch her range, Audrey Tautou has to take much of the blame for the film’s failure. Thérèse is the kind of role usually reserved for Isabelle Huppert, and Tautou is, at best, awkward in depicting her character’s inner turmoil with expressions ranging from smirks to blank stares. The scion of a wealthy, propertied family, with thousands of acres of prime woodland, Thérèse, with seeming equanimity, becomes affianced to Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), whose neighboring estate will add thousands of acres more. When Bernard, who boasts the inky black hair and mustache of a likely future member of the fascist French Popular Party, asks with a twinkle in his eye why she is marrying him, Thérèse teasingly responds, “For the pines.”
So it would seem, but a prologue featuring the young Thérèse (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) and her BFF Anne (Matilda Marty-Giraut), Bernard’s younger sister, suggests that her affections may be directed elsewhere. It’s hard to read Thérèse’s enigmatic response when, say, the coltish Anne gaily wrings the neck of a game bird she’s bagged. Is Thérèse repelled by or drawn to Anne’s simple, animalistic nature? The possibility of Thérèse having a taboo attraction to her friend might explain why, years later, she betrays the now grown-up Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), complying with the Desqueyroux family’s request to thwart Anne’s crush on Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber). Though Jean is a hunk from one of the wealthiest families around, the Azevedos are Portuguese, and maybe even Jewish, and so are socially unacceptable.
On the other hand, maybe Thérèse has a hankering for Jean herself, ogling him as he floats past the Desqueyroux estate, the red sails of his boat swollen in the breeze. In tête-à-têtes they swap decadent quotes from Gide and denounce the hypocrisy of society. Could they be kindred souls? Do they even have any?
It’s hard to tell. Despite her chain-smoking and voice-overs of avant la lettre existentialist despair, Thérèse’s anomie seems random, her actions without affect. Society hasn’t done her in, but rather mediocrity and boredom — which this film all too convincingly conveys.