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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times