Audrey Tautou has never quite cast off the elfin shadow of her breakout role in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001). Over the past decade, she’s taken on her fair share of more austere roles, and few have seen her turn a performance as restrained as in Thérèse Desqueyroux (2012) – out now on DVD and Blu-ray. The second adaptation of one of Françoise Mauriac’s most famous novels, the period drama was brought to the screen as the swansong of French director Claude Miller. As a whole, the film resembles its protagonist: a cool, staid veneer and languorous way of life giving way to surprisingly effective tension.
Thérèse (Tautou) is the free-spirited daughter of a wealthy landowner that spends hazy summers in the South of France staying with a doting aunt. She frolics her days away with best-friend, Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), and several years later she finds herself preparing for an arranged marriage to Anne’s cloddish brother, Bernard (Gilles Lellouche). Their union will amass a vast swathe of pine forest, but provoke little affection – in Thérèse at least. Repressed by their slow and uninteresting existence, she toys with the idea of an affair, but when it fails to materialise turns instead to the slow poisoning her coarse husband. It feels like an odd narrative turn, for what is a very measured and proper 1920s-set costume drama.
Thérèse Desqueyroux’s sumptuous visuals give the locale a nostalgic beauty but characters remain disarmingly passionless. At one point, Anne falls madly in love but a combination of snobbishness, and anti-Semitism, sees the Desqueyroux family put a firm end to the affair. During this scenario, Thérèse’s frustration at being trapped in her loveless marriage is revealed and the resentment that this causes in her for her husband becomes clear. Even so, when she matter-of-factly begins her nefarious venture, it all occurs behind an opaque and placid mask. This all amounts, in terms of sensation and thrill, to the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry and the slow, deliberate pace could easily put some viewers off.
Those that are not easily deterred, however, will be rewarded by the unexpected tension that gradually builds. As her scheme comes to its conclusion and the consequences are felt, the preceding runtime becomes all important in understanding Thérèse’s motivations, with Tautou herself giving little away. Whether or not audiences feel the pervading tension will hold the key as to how much that get out of Thérèse Desqueyroux. It’s a finely put together French period drama that feels like it is going nowhere slowly, but that is it’s ultimate purpose. The performance from Tautou will hardly banish memories of Amélie, but it proves a transfixing turn at the centre of a quietly engrossing piece.
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