Thérèse Desqueyroux strives after a significance that it can’t corroborate

Claude Miller's new adaptation of Thérèse Desqueyroux has some neat acting from Audrey Tautou, but the film fails to catch fire.

Thérèse Desqueyroux (12A)
dir: Claude Miller

It’s been 12 years since Audrey Tautou starred as a Parisian flibbertigibbet in Amélie but it’s still the part that springs instantly to mind whenever she is on-screen and it will stay that way until she explicitly sullies its memory. A persona can be a hard thing to kill off. Just ask Julie Andrews, who exposed her breasts in the 1981 show-business satire SOB but found that the intended sense of outrage refused to take.

If Tautou wants her role as Amélie to be stored at the back of our mental filing cabinets, she should probably follow the example of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West and choose a movie that would make audiences despise her. Yes, I know she was in The Da Vinci Code. I mean something even worse than that.

She comes closer than before in parts of Thérèse Desqueyroux, which still isn’t that close at all. This is the second film of François Mauriac’s 1927 novel; the first, less strait-laced version was made in 1962 by Georges Franju, the director of the warped Eyes Without a Face. In the new adaptation, which marks the final work of the late director Claude Miller, Tautou plays Thérèse, an heiress in south-west France during the late 1920s with an unrivalled collection of cloche hats. She is about to marry the game-shooting toff Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), though it’s not their hearts and minds that are merging but their real estate: a combined 11,000 acres of Bordeaux pine forestry, as Bernard points out, the old romantic.

Not that Thérèse is any better. She openly admits that she’s marrying him for his pines as well as his . . . what else is there? It isn’t that Bernard lacks charisma, exactly, but he does seem like a moustache with a man hanging off it.

The problem is one of timing. Thérèse is a forward-thinking lass, hungry for excitement, and yet she finds herself tangled up in a drab marriage with a prosaic lug. The film features the standard shot of the bored wife in bed beneath her lustful and oblivious husband but Miller has already conveyed the dissatisfaction to come in a deft shot of Thérèse watching Bernard from a distance at their wedding reception. Her expression is detached and ashen.

It’s a neat bit of acting from Tautou: stock still but moving. Miller has always been precise about such revealing details, even to the point where some of his work (predominantly psychological dramas such as Class Trip and Betty Fisher and Other Stories) risks feeling underwhelming come the final reel. His strengths have always resided in the minutiae, the accidental giveaways, rather than the big finish. So it proves once more.

Going into the marriage, Thérèse knows she is restless. She worries about what she calls her “wrong ideas”. “When I’m married,” she says, “my ideas will all go back in order. It’ll save me from all the disorder in my head.” Good luck with that.

In reality, it only makes things worse. Her unhappiness is sharpened by the knowledge that her sister-in-law, Anne (Anaïs Demous­tier), is blissfully in love. Thérèse and Anne were childhood chums, sweethearts almost. Idyllic summers on the lake, lolling around in the warm grass, breaking the necks of pigeons: they did it all.

Now, Anne has found Jean (Stanley Weber). He doesn’t have any pines to speak of but he is young and dishy and he makes her tingle. Anne sends her dear friend a photograph of him with a letter that reads: “Write back and say you think he’s the most handsome person in the world!” Thérèse takes one look and sets fire to the picture. I’d say that’s a “maybe”.

At first, Thérèse devotes all her energies to crushing Anne’s romantic prospects – after all, a girl needs a hobby – but it doesn’t truly satisfy her. When she notices that Bernard’s heart medicine contains arsenic, she seizes on a new project. What if she were to add a few extra squeezes of the pipette to his drink each day?

This makes both the picture and Thérèse sound rather more propulsive and purposeful than is actually the case. It’s always nice to see story and characterisation inching forwards through intimation, with a film-maker trusting the audience to pick up the clues. However, there is also such a thing as too little information and it’s often the case that Thérèse Desqueyroux strives after a significance that it can’t corroborate.

If Thérèse is intended to embody a kind of pre-feminist spirit and suffering, it might help if she were shown to have some command over her actions, some intent, rather than simply drifting from anti-Cupid to amateur poisoner in an apparently unmotivated search for something to occupy herself with.

Near the start of the film, Bernard watches her smoking among the pines. “Careful of the ferns,” he says portentously. “It hasn’t rained in ages.” The implication is that she’s hot and fiery but neither she nor the film named after her could honestly be said to give off sparks.

Audrey Tautou and Gilles Lellouche in Miller's new adaptation of Thérèse Desqueyroux.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit