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

Getty
Show Hide image

Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

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

0800 7318496