Thérèse's linear structure, no-surprises narrative, and emotionless characters make the whole production feel rather mundane.
Premiering as the Closing Night film at the Cannes film festival last year was Claude Miller’s final film (before passing away) Thérèse. Adapted from a novel of the same name, Thérèse is a slow-burner period piece about a newlywed woman who attempts to break free from her marriage and social pressures. The film’s linear structure, no-surprises narrative, and emotionless characters make the whole production feel rather mundane; save for some beautiful cinematography that provides the only stimulation found in the film.
One of the first conversations between the soon to be married couple Thérèse Larrorque (Audrey Tautou) and Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche) is about how much land they will own together, which speaks volumes about their relationship. Both of their families own thousands of acres of pine trees and calculate that once they get married they will own 11,000 acres of land. Even as a young teenager Thérèse was well aware that her future marriage with Bernard would be more for the family’s interest of land ownership rather than actual love. The two acknowledge the business first/love last marriage from the beginning and both are completely content with going through with it anyways.
Contrasting their relationship in just about every way is the love-fueled relationship between Thérèse’s sister-in-law Anne de la Trave (Anaïs Demoustier) and Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber), a man that the family does not deem fit for Anne. Thérèse envies the love between the two and promises to side with Anne despite the family’s disapproval. But when Thérèse finally meets Jean to discuss Anne, she finds out that he has no intention to marry her and develops a minor infatuation for him.
Thérèse does a credible job of using self-evident visuals to symbolize its narrative. Perhaps the most obvious case of this is how their land of pines represents their marriage, so when it eventually catches on fire it signifies the destruction of their relationship. Or when Thérèse is so disgusted in herself that she puts her hand up to block the reflection because she cannot bear to look back at her own image. Storms are often on the horizon, suggesting that the danger is just around the corner.
Although Audrey Tautou’s role calls for her to be completely free of passion and emotions to the people around her, it does not change the fact that it is frustrating as a viewer to also be shunned of her motivations. For the time period her character is considered free-spirited and full of thoughts, yet we are not privy to what she is thinking. She is as lifeless as the dead animals brought back from the hunting expeditions throughout the film. And while all of this is done on purpose, the most difficult thing to do is care about a character who does not seem to care about anything themselves.
The biggest disappointment in Thérèse is the straightforward approach of the narrative structure. Every step along the way is foreshadowed long before it happens, leaving no surprises or curves to spice up the lethargic narrative when the inevitable does occur. While some of the plot points are made abundantly clear, like how oppressive society was at the time; other subplots dissolve without much explanation, such as Thérèse’s subtle attraction to Jean and subsequent falling out with her best friend Anne. The ornate production design and the outstanding use of cinematography recreate the time period and stand among the most noteworthy characteristics of Thérèse, but they are not enough to overcome all the drawbacks.