It takes great skill to portray a character that more often than not resides in their own head, and Audrey Tautou and the late director Claude Miller succeed effortlessly. Thérèse is a fascinating look not only at a world that is largely unfamiliar to many but also a character that is so the opposite of many traditional female characters that Tautou’s performance, I fear, may be lost on many.
The film is based on a 1927 classic French novel of the same name that depicts Thérèse Larroque (Audrey Tautou), a wealthy woman with a sizable property inheritance, in a marriage of convenience with another wealthy man, Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), whose pinewood properties are also sizable. Together their assets make them one of the wealthiest land owners in southwest France. The couple enter into the marriage with the matter-of-factness that is expected of their upbringing; not only were their lives never their own, but their marriage too is only for the good of their respective family’s survival. What begins as a mere duty for Thérèse, soon devolves into a suffocating burden that she tries, through increasingly sinister measures, to absolve herself from.
In the film, we see Thérèse as a woman who is very contemplative. She is always thinking, and presumably calculating. The camera spends long stretches of time on Tautou, and you can hear the wheels turning beyond her icy lonely stare. The film takes us inside her head only a couple times, by creating scenes that simulate scenarios Thérèse is thinking, but for the most part Miller relies on Tautou’s ability to fully embody her character. Tautou captures brilliantly the nature of a woman so beyond her times she can feel the rumbles of the feminist movement decades ahead. She doesn’t take much crap from her husband, often delivering dry witticisms, but at the very least she submits to obligatory sex sessions, including being awoken in the middle of night by Bernard’s roaming hand. It’s really when she see’s her sister-in-law and childhood friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier) engage in a passionate affair outside her family’s wishes, that Thérèse begins to yearn for what she never thought she could have.
Thérèse is not a tragic figure in the traditional sense. She is smart, definitely much more intelligent than a woman of her time had any right to be, and as a result she is left in a complicated middle ground that leaves her both a victim and a skilled manipulator of the era’s social mores. Instead of being desperate or pitiful she is angry and fearful of what she inevitably may become in trying to reach her goal of ultimate freedom. Leaving a marriage and a baby behind is difficult, if not impossible. And while her escalation of measures to extract herself from an unhappy marriage is extreme and largely unnecessary today (arson, fraud, bodily harm), her focus on seeking another life for herself makes it the only means by which to leave. Like so many who are blinded by their own ambition, it is only in the aftermath that they are able to see the damage they cause.
Ironically, the same oppressive society that she wants to escape from, ultimately saves her. During the investigation into the events that left her husband near death, both Bernard and her family help in fabricating a story to make it seem like an accident. It also helps to have money greasing the wheels of the court system. It’s hard to believe that Thérèse actions were all committed on impulse, especially since up to this point she is ultimately a passionless woman. What I see is a survivor, using what she has at her disposal to get what she wants and for the most part she succeeds. As she walks through the streets of Paris a “free” woman, smiling secretly to herself, her intentions seem crystal clear.
Thérèse opens today at the Ritz Bourse.