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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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