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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.