Claude Miller's final film is an adaptation of Francois Mauriac's book starring Audrey Tautou
François Mauriac’s 1927 novel is one of the cornerstones of French literature, but is less familiar to non-Gallic audiences. Casting comely Amelie star Audrey Tautou as the repressed wife who impulsively seeks revenge on her domineering husband suggests a warmer approach to the emotionally remote character, but this final film from the great Claude Miller remains somewhat aloof.
Miller introduces Thérèse as a teenage girl, frolicking in a pastoral setting with her younger sister Anne (Anaïs Demoustier). She agrees to marry Bernard (Gilles Lellouche from 2010’s hit Point Blank) and jokes that she’s only marrying him for the pine forest that grows upon his family’s land. Unfortunately, Bernard turns out to be substantially more interested in hunting than in his young wife, and the daily dose of arsenic he’s prescribed for ill health provides Thérèse with an opportunity to punish his disinterest.
Thérèse’s motivation, or lack of it, is the crux of Mauriac’s novel, and Miller doesn’t shy away from the deliberate ambiguity. By removing the framing structure from the book, which begins with Thérèse leaving the courtroom and unfolding the events by flashback, Miller and co-writer Natalie Carter add tension to the narrative. But by not suggesting the internal struggles of the characters, Miller’s film can seem as cold-hearted and distant as its heroine.
Miller was one of world cinema’s most sophisticated filmmakers, and the calm, unmelodramatic tone of his final film typifies his collected approach to storytelling. But audiences attracted by the star names and the murder-mystery trappings may well be disappointed in the lack of resolution provided here. Thérèse Desqueyroux works best as a character study, with Tautou impressive as a shrewish, unhappy woman who, despite her extreme actions, finds that her fate remains frustratingly beyond her control.
Thérèse Desqueyroux screened at Glasgow Film Festival. On limited release summer 2013.