Writer/director Claude Miller's swan song Thérèse constitutes an adaptation of François Mauriac's seminal 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux. Georges Franju made an earlier screen incarnation in 1962; in its narrative outlines, the Miller remake closely follows both its literary source material and the prior movie.
When we first meet her, Thérèse Larroque (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) is a 15-year-old bourgeois girl from a wealthy provincial family. She spends many happy and carefree summers in rural France in the company of her best friend Anne (Matilda Marty-Giraut). While Anne falls head over heels in love with a forbidden partner -- a Jewish boy named Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber) -- Thérèse encounters another sort of ill-fated relationship. She finds herself bound and tied to an arranged marriage with Anne's brother, Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche) -- a stale and stuffy landowner many years her senior, who snatches her up sans hesitation. We then flash forward eight years. Newlywed Thérèse (now played by Audrey Tautou) exists at violent odds with her reactionary surroundings, while her marriage to Bernard seems impossible at best, with hints of impending disaster on the horizon.
The early passages of the movie establish and sustain a wondrous enigmatic quality, as we study the laconic, cryptic Thérèse and attempt to read her. Working in tandem with Tautou, who obviously developed an intimate understanding of Thérèse and projects tantalizing external clues, Miller's style involves dropping subtle visual indicators as a form of narrative shorthand. For example: Via gauzy impressionistic shots of the girls' summers together and a close-up of the young women holding hands in bed, as well as Thérèse's facial response to news of Anne's feelings for Jean, Miller implies that Thérèse has fallen into Sapphic love with Anne that far outstrips anything she could ever, or will ever, feel for the wallflower Bernard. Similarly, Miller gives us the impression that Thérèse opposes the latent anti-Semitism that surrounds her and that manifests itself in the family's reactions to a potential relationship between Anne and Jean. The parents express their belief in ugly stereotypes -- such as the idea that Jewish boys are typically disease ridden. Thérèse is too quiet and introverted to raise a verbal objection, but from appearances, we can size up the fact that she vehemently disagrees. At one point, Thérèse and Jean cross paths and he identifies her on the spot: She isn't of this world. Indeed, we can surmise that she may have been born out of her own time.
As the marriage rolls forward, though, Thérèse only grows more and more walled up within herself and increasingly opaque to us. Concomitantly, the union with Bernard turns into a greater and greater imposition. We realize that she will either break in half or take a stab at emotional and spiritual liberation by attempting to escape from the marriage. However, the great twist in the story involves the young woman's limited capacity for introspection; she's aware of the swirling torrents of rebellion that rage inside her, but lacks the reflexive insight to grasp what they mean or the confidence necessary to emerge from her shell. Consequently, her efforts to withdraw from Bernard's clutches are not simply crude and ineffectual, but dangerous.
This is all as engrossing as one might expect; in fact, it's sort of a European period reiteration of two outstanding feminist films from decades prior, Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People and Barbara Loden's Wanda -- each of which bears a similar conceit and a comparably embryonic lead character. If Thérèse falls short of those earlier works, it only does so in terms of its length; on top of its overall atmosphere of oppression, the picture goes on and on. It makes valid points about Thérèse's behavior, outlook, and imprisonment, but repeats them ad infinitum -- making the middle stretch of this film a shade too tedious and overbearing. The movie could stand to be about a half hour shorter, which wouldn't diminish its overall impact.
That notwithstanding, the ambiguities and mysteries of Thérèse herself feel truly haunting, Tautou delivers an award-worthy performance, and Miller had such a magnificent eye that one can't help but lament his passing. He fills the screen not only with one astute behavioral revelation after another, but with cunning metaphors such as a patch of wallpaper peeled back to reveal an alternate pattern beneath -- symbolic of Thérèse's hidden inner life. This isn't a perfect film, but it's a sharply observed and beautifully executed one that trusts the audience enough to let us infer its many valid observations about human nature, female roles, and class limitations in early-20th century France.