Following on from the critical and commercial success of A Royal Affair (2012) and the Oscar-winning Anna Karenina (2012), it seems that the French are once again looking to tap into the allure of the period drama. In cinemas this week is Claude Miller’s eponymous adaptation of François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux (2012), far less elaborate and grandiose than the aforementioned films, yet a more subtle and affecting offering. Set in Landes in the 1920s, Audrey Tautou plays Thérèse, a wealthy, free-spirited woman who enters into a fruitless, unhappy marriage with Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche).
Thérèse may live within an affluent society, yet she dreams of something more – growing increasingly tired and frustrated with her tedious suburban setting, and struggling to break away from the social pressures of living within rural France at such a time. Marrying Bernard, Thérèse is adamant that she will soon grow comfortable living such a lifestyle, yet as she becomes jealous of her sister-in-law Anne’s (Anaïs Demoustier) fledgling romance, and becomes pregnant with Bernard’s child, the pressure of motherhood and the grand ideas that continue to roam in her head, ensure that Thérèse may never quite feel content.
Amélie star Tautou often plumps for strong, liberated female roles – women who make their own decisions and shape their own destiny – and this adds a poignancy to the role of Desqueyroux. Similar to other literary heroines of the period, such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, she struggles to make herself heard in the stifling suburban society she inhabits. Tautou shines in the role, treading a fine line between fragility and vulnerability, yet remaining resolute and strong-willed. She is subtle in her approach, and although being a hugely emotive piece, she internalises her turmoil, providing the viewer with an ambiguity as we struggle to get inside the head of our absorbing protagonist.
Meanwhile, Lellouche is equally as impressive, and although playing the big bad husband figure, he isn’t nasty or villainous. He may play the role sternly, yet he does so with a compassionate nature and on the whole he remains surprisingly likeable. This helps the story and makes it feel more authentic, as the reasons for their dissipating marriage is not black and white – Bernard is not violent or intimidating, and instead Thérèse grows disillusioned with the small idiosyncrasies of his demeanour, such as when he counts out loud when taking his medicine – perceptive personality traits only she would pick up on and become annoyed by.
Although an intelligent and provocative piece, Thérèse Desqueyroux is tedious in parts and given it’s based on a lengthy classic novel, it does feel as if Miller has attempted to fit perhaps too much into just one feature film. Yet, despite being a rigidly formulaic period drama, its French sensibilities and whimsical edge are apparent, ensuring a film that will no doubt intrigue and compel its target audience.