All screen adaptations of classic novels face the same inevitable obstacle: though they need not best their source material, they must work twice as hard as an original film to justify their existence. Why watch an adaptation of Jane Eyre, of Pride and Prejudice, or of Madame Bovary when those original texts are so celebrated and so readily available?
François Mauriac’s 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux may not be as well known on this side of the Atlantic as those novels, but it is nevertheless a French classic. The literary origins of the late Claude Miller’s adaptation, which has its United States premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center are manifestly and regrettably obvious. The events of the film take place over many years and lack the propulsive dramatic force of stories crafted directly for the screen. The last third of the movie does not build to climax but simply and unsatisfyingly peters out. Miller’s direction, meanwhile, is pedestrian at best: this is not a movie made up of striking, original images. His visual choices convey little about the characters or the narrative.
But there is something else about the film that hearkens back to prose fiction, and particularly to the novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Thérèse herself. She is a fascinating creature, one we cannot help but find compelling even if we would not, perhaps, want to deal with her in real life. If the film deserves to exist at all – and I’m not sure it does – that is due to Audrey Tatou’s performance in the lead role, which is truly remarkable. It’s safe to assume that readers of Mauriac’s novel are privy to Thérèse’s innermost emotions, but viewers of Miller’s film have to rely primarily on Tatou’s performance to figure out what is going on inside her character’s head. She effortlessly telegraphs each of Thérèse’s thoughts and feelings to the audience, despite the fact that the character is nearly always acting a very different role in front of her family.
The press materials for the film compare Thérèse to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, which is certainly valid: she, like both of them, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage; she, like them, yearns for the city while imprisoned in the stultifying country. She is ultimately separated from her child, toward whom she has never expressed much maternal feeling. But Emma is a fool and Anna is a martyr, and Thérèse is something harder and slipperier. Deliberately or not, she owes far more to Kate Croy, the anti-hero of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, than to the long list of suicidal women who populate so many nineteenth-century novels. Kate is manipulative, conniving, and amoral, but she is not without feeling. Tatou’s performance, indeed, is strongly reminiscent of Helena Bonham Carter’s as Kate in the 1997 adaptation of that novel, easily one of the most successful adaptations of a complex nineteenth-century text. The minds behind that movie were smart enough to shape their story into something undeniably cinematic. Despite the relative age of the source material, it feels new.
THÉRÈSE, alas, feels no such thing. Though changes were certainly made to the source material, the film nevertheless plays like an old book that has been translated directly – and uncreatively – to the screen. Thérèse struggles against the bonds of her family and the staid, bourgeois society of which they are a part; Tatou struggles equally against the bonds of a movie that does not really know what to do with her. It is a crying shame that one of her most complex and accomplished performances came to be in so undeserving a movie.
dir. Claude Miller
feat. Audrey Tatou, Gilles Lellouche, Anaïs Demoustier
110 minutes, NR