Long before suburban malaise, there was provincial melancholy, and Therese Desqueyroux had a severe case. Played by Audrey Tautou, the title character of the 1920s-set French film “Thérèse” clearly is miserable. But director Claude Miller has a harder time showing that she deserves pity, much less a moviegoer’s precious minutes, in this beautifully filmed but lumbering adaptation of François Mauriac’s 1927 novel.
The film opens in 1922 as Thérèse and her friend Anne wile away a summer day in a remote forested area of France. The pine trees that surround the girls belong to two families — Anne’s and Thérèse’s — and a marriage between the latter and her friend’s brother, Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), would be advantageous for all parties.
Six years later Thérèse and Bernard marry, but before the union Therese seems troubled. The daughter of a radical, Therese has her own ideas, and she seems to hope that marriage will silence the voices in her head that protest the status quo.
But rather than assimilate, Thérèse’s discontent only grows more acute after she marries, especially when she hears about the relationship between Anne (played as an adult by Anaïs Demoustier) and a mysterious man. The pairing is particularly passionate given that Anne’s parents veto the match. The woman’s ardor becomes something of an obsession for Thérèse, even though it only serves to remind her of her loveless marriage.
Therese ends up at odds with the entire Desqueyroux clan, and in a moment of desolation, she makes a fateful decision she hopes might save her.
For the most part, “Thérèse” is a joyless tale, and the normally incandescent Tautou deserves praise for her ability to dull her radiance. The number of times she smiles in the film likely falls short of double digits. She is depressed, and she seemed so from the start. It’s hard to lament her circumstances when her tedious marriage may not in fact be to blame.
This is a film that weighs heavily, and yet it’s not an emotional undertaking. With the exception of one heartbreaking and well-acted scene towards the end of the movie, the atmosphere is oppressive and the characters act as if their personalities have been shot with novocaine.
All that being said, the movie is lovely to look at. Memorable images look like real-life replicas of paintings, including a shot of a red-sailed boat floating along blue water and angles that capture the rustic allure of tall trees.
The magnificent nature that surrounds Therese becomes her prison. It’s an interesting paradox, but not necessarily an especially satisfying experience.
Not rated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sexual situations and brief violence. In French with English subtitles.