“Therese Desqueyroux,” the closing night selection for this year’s main competition lineup at the Cannes Film Festival, is not the nuanced period drama it should be but rather a banal, pseudo-thoughtful and monotonous episode of “Masterpiece Theater.” Co-adapted by director Claude Miller (“A Secret,” “Class Trip“), the latest adaptation of Francois Mauriac‘s acclaimed novel reduces the titular heroine’s story to a troubled individual’s struggle to remain autonomous as a member of her oppressive husband’s family. The phrase, “For the family” is bludgeoned into viewers’ heads to the point where it’s very easy to ignore the fact that Therese (Audrey Tautou) is more than just a proto-desperate housewife. In fact, she’s a fatalist because she’s also an atheist, a complex concept that Miller sets up but doesn’t follow through on.
Ultimately, Miller’s Therese rebels against her boorish husband Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) and his insensitive family simply because she needs to do something–anything, really–to get her mojo back. His version of the character starts out as a flesh-and-blood person and winds up as just another doomed femme.
“Therese Desqueryoux” follows the disintegration of the title character’s dream of living an uncomplicated life. Therese, a wealthy landowner, marries the equally well-established Bernard for security’s sake. This puts her at odds with her best friend Anne de la Trave (Anais Demoustier), who wants to marry Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber), a young, wealthy man who loves and is loved by Anne. Therese is passive throughout her character arc. But she starts to really lose her voice when she helps Bernard and his family in their bid to block Anne and Jean’s marriage. Admittedly, Therese only precipitates her eventual falling-out with Anne by doing nothing to actively support Anne and Jean’s courtship.
Miller does a generally nuanced job of establishing Therese as a complex character in his film’s first hour. Here, we see the fetishistic importance Tautou’s frail introvert places on regaining her own agency but in relatively subtle ways. For instance, during her wedding ceremony, the demurely dressed Therese furtively looks to her wedding’s congregants for approval as she walks down the aisle.
In this scene, we see through Tautou’s alternately affected and accomplished performance that Therese secretly is seeking recognition but from whom is unclear. This makes sense given that Therese is, unlike Bernard, not religious (“Religion is a convenience,” she tells Jean). The scene where we first learn that Therese is an atheist is very satisfying, though rather blunt. Miller shows Bernard leading a procession to the church and, in response, Therese thinks spitefully about how ridiculous the ritual is. This adds great nuance to an earlier scene where Therese tells Anne that she wants to marry someone who will make life bearable for her. She chooses Bernard not for his wealth, as she jokes with him, but because she doesn’t believe it’s possible to be either romantically or spiritually fulfilled.
Miller does not however sustain that level of complexity when he charts the collapse of Therese’s marriage to Bernard. Two major events understandably wind up defining their relationship in the film’s second half: the birth of Therese and Bernard’s daughter; and Bernard’s heart condition. Both occasions lead Therese to make decisions that ultimately have major consequences on her life with Bernard. But because she mostly glowers, sulks and pouts her way through these decisions, Therese looks more like an embittered loser than a woman struggling to reclaim her sense of agency. Here’s where we really start to see the great difficulty of translating such a cerebral work to the screen: it’s not easy to externalize Therese’s interior life without making her look like a passive-aggressive drama queen. Miller winds up doing just that, unfortunately. His Therese eventually sinks under the weight of her actions and looks like a sullen teenager who has just been grounded by her father.
It’s also especially frustrating to see Therese’s inability to take responsibility for her daughter treated so lightly in Miller’s “Therese Desqueyroux.” The fact that Therese’s daughter takes to Anne so much that she winds up becoming the child’s surrogate mother is over-emphasized to the point that it appears to be the cause of Therese’s most audacious protest against Bernard. That creative decision alone effectively hobbles Miller’s ‘Desqueryoux,’ which starts out very strong but ends as meekly as its protagonist’s story does. [C]