Being unemployed has its perks. I've taken up yoga again, I'm trying out new chili recipes, and best of all, I'm catching up on my French movies. This week I took in "Thérèse Desqueyroux", an adaptation of a classic French novel by François Mauriac, published in 1927, and itself based on a real-life case of a provincial woman accused of poisoning her husband.
"Thérèse Desqueyroux" was the last film of director Claude Miller, best known for his thought-provoking dramas like "La classe de neige" and "A secret." The film takes place in the 1920's in the countryside near Bordeaux. Thérèse, played by Audrey Tatou of "Amélie" fame, is the intelligent, restless daughter of a wealthy landowner who in another time might have become a scholar or professional. Instead, she is expected to marry Bernard, the son of the neighboring landowner, who also happens to be the brother of her best friend, Anne.
Although the film hints she is more drawn to Anne than Bernard, Thérèse goes through with the marriage, hoping it will quiet down the "too many thoughts in her head," as she puts it. Instead, she finds married life stifling and frustrating. All the more so when she compares it to the passionate but doomed love affair Anne enters into with the hot young "Israelite" next door, who then begins to flirt with Thérèse once Anne is whisked away by her parents.
Thérèse gives birth to a daughter, whom she seems to have little affection for, and begins to truly resent her complacent, hypochondriac husband. When one day he accidentally overdoses on his arsenic-laced heart medicine, Thérèse decides to help thing along by continuing to poison him. Some forged prescriptions lead to Thérèse being caught. But rather than send her to jail, the families close ranks to avoid a scandal and Thérèse winds up even more a prisoner than before.
I won't give away exactly what Thérèse's fate is, although plot is not really the important thing here. The film's real accomplishment is making us if not sympathize, than at least understand Thérèse's actions. Miller's directing style is fairly classic, the story is told in a straightforward chronological way, relying heavily on close-ups of Tatou's closed-off face.
But Miller is clearly an actor's director and it's actually pretty impressive how little Tatou gives away yet how clear her longing and frustration are conveyed, as well as her ambivalence towards her own actions. Gilles Lelouche, who is better known for his comic roles, is also a stand-out as the smug, unaware Bernard, whose brush with death actually makes him pay real attention to his wife for the first time.
"Thèrèse Desqueyroux" is not going to rock any cinematic worlds and Tatou's performance is likely to disappoint fans of her usual brand of sparkle. But there's not exactly an overload of elegant, well-acted period dramas at the moment, so if you're in the mood, it's worth taking a look at if it comes your way.