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‘Thérése’ (NR)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 23, 1987

The hardest, and for some the highest, calling of film is the suggestion of transcendence, and such is the achievement of "Thérése." In the hands of director Alain Cavalier, this film thrills, seduces, befuddles and sometimes wallops you with beauty.

"Thérése" tells the story of the young French Carmelite nun whose diary became a best seller, and who later became a saint. When we meet Thérése (Catherine Mouchet), she's similar to any lively adolescent girl, but with one crucial difference -- she has a crush, not on her teacher or Billy Jones, but on Jesus Christ. And though she's too young for the rigors of the cloister, she soon enough joins her sisters in the Carmelite order.

As Thérése progresses within the order, Cavalier walks you through the rituals and daily chores of the Carmelites -- simple tasks such as laundry, or cleaning fish; others more arcane, like scourging the flesh with nails or rough corsets. Visually, "Thérése" is stripped down, with items of furniture set against a plain gray photographer's backdrop, but it's in no way meager or penurious. In fact, what strikes you most about "Thérése" is how sensuous it is.

With spectacular control, Cavalier lights "Thérése" so that the contrast of the nuns' habits fills your eye, as visually rich and joyous as a gala formal ball. His camera enjoys the surfaces of things, the slime on the fish or the texture of linen or the feel of sheets newly warmed by a brazier; on the sound track, scrapes, crinkles and crashes jump out at you. Rarely has a film been so alive to the possibilities of the senses, and the way Cavalier sensitizes you also involves you in the Carmelites' way of being -- for Cavalier, their self-denial only heightens their perceptions of ordinary things.

For his subject is not just the religious life, but the pleasure of worship, the rapturous domesticity of it -- Cavalier takes the Carmelite metaphor of marriage to Jesus and makes it palpable. His Thérése is that most entrancing species -- the happy newlywed -- in its most heightened form. Which isn't to say he's uncritical. The bitter words of a yeoman jilted by one of the sisters, and the harsh curses of a doctor who comes to treat Thérése when she contracts tuberculosis, lend the film an outsider's perspective (as well as, in the yeoman's case, leavening it with humor). But these glints of objectivity only accent the movie's marvelous intimacy with its subject.

For without the shocking excesses of "Hail, Mary," Cavalier has adopted the same tack as Godard, garnishing the experience of transcendence with the sort of ordinary trappings that make it available to all. This goes beyond the nuns' involvement with their own bodies -- it involves Cavalier's gorgeous meditations on the landscape of the human face. As he examines the physiognomy of an old woman who entered the convent when her husband died, or dwells on Mouchet, her eyes alive with animal vitality, her features simple and a little off-center, Cavalier quite literally puts a human face on the abstract conceptions of religion.

The centerpiece of the film's approach, though, is the way it changes your sense of time. From the very outset (a collage of short blackout sketches), each tableaux, each sound, each object is held separate and revered. As the film progresses, it accumulates into a slow reverie of quick moments. We see it as we see God -- in glimpses.

Thérése is unrated and contains no offensive material.

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