Audrey Tautou, who will forever be known for Amélie, and identified with that film’s happy pixie female lead, is a beautiful woman. But in the film Thérèse, she does something rather amazing: she gets un-beautiful. And not via a bad haircut, fake nose, or unflattering make-up. She’s unattractive because she plays a character who’s miserable, and as such, rarely smiles. She is fighting against a life that gives her no joy, and Tautou, through the sheer act of, well, acting, transforms her face into something sad and homely. It’s, frankly, kind of amazing.
It’s too bad the movie itself isn’t really worthy of such a great performance.
Based on the 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, Thérèse is set in 1920s France, in a coastal area surrounded by pines, home to two wealthy families. As a teen, Thérèse (Tautou) develops a close friendship with Anne, (Anaïs Demoustier), the daughter of the neighboring family, and is told at a young age that she will eventually marry Anne’s brother Bernard, (Gilles Lellouche), thus joining the two wealthy families–and their acres of pine-filled lands–together.
When the time for marriage comes, Thérèse goes into it with little objection–but no real passion for it either. A cerebral woman, she doesn’t much believe in romantic or passionate love–and her wedding night does nothing to change her mind. Resigned to a life of boring comfort, Thérèse finds little joy in anything–not in her marriage and not in the child she eventually bears. But when Anne falls madly in love with a boy the family doesn’t approve of–and writes Thérèse incessantly about her new-found passion– this brings up something in Thérèse. And she starts to react in a very dangerous way.
The movie is a bit frustrating. Because Thérèse is SO filled with ennui, it’s a little hard to truly understand why she gets so worked up about her friend’s happiness. Jealously is the obvious reasoning, but there’s also the hint of something more. She’s attracted to Anne’s lover, Jean (Stanley Weber), but more to his freedom than to his looks. If Thérèse had found love in her marriage, would she have been satisfied with her stiff, upper-class life? Or is freedom from all of it the only thing she wants?
Not a lot happens in Thérèse, and is certainly not the movie for people who don’t like foreign films. It’s slow. But it’s also beautiful. This is director Claude Miller’s final film–he died in 2012–and if you have no desire to visit coastal France after seeing the stunning cinematography in this picture, you may want to get your eyes checked.
But, again, the truly stunning aspect of the movie is how Miller and Tautou are able to create the opposite of something beautiful, in the character of Thérèse.