11 June 2013

Claude Miller’s 'Thérèse Desqueyroux'

François Mauriac (1885-1970) was born in Bordeaux and published the novel on which Miller’s last film is based in 1927. It is set in that period in the Landes, the département in the Aquitaine region in SW France which is famous for its vast pine forests stretching along the Atlantic coast. Tautou plays the eponymous Thérèse, the daughter of a wealthy forestry family. She enters into a marriage with Bernard, son of a neighbouring timber dynasty, an arrangement familiar to readers of novels by Galsworthy, a Nobel Laureate like Mauriac.

Thérèse, as repressed as one of Strindberg’s or Ibsen’s women, soon realises that Bernard, while not quite as thick as a pine plank, is no soul mate. Miller apparently decided against voiceovers as a way of articulating Mauriac’s descriptions of Thérèse’s inner turmoils. Unfortunately Tautou’s skill as an actress only rarely extends to providing much insight into her character through facial expression or demeanour. It is therefore a surprise (at least outside France where the novel is well-known) when Thérèse embarks on a course of action which could have been catastrophic for her and the families involved. However, the French bourgeoisie have always had their ways of dealing with such problems and, although Thérèse has to pay a considerable price, in the end Bernard, at least in part, redeems himself in his treatment of her. When reflecting on the position of women in France at the time, it is worth remembering that the electoral franchise remained male until 1944.

Thérèse Desqueyroux is a handsomely filmed period piece and for me part of its appeal came from some of the locations which were actually in the Gironde, not the Landes. According to IMDb the village and church scenes were filmed in Rions, a pretty place on the bank of the Garonne river and not far from Mauriac’s house at Malagar. The latter is now preserved as part of the Centre François Mauriac and is well worth visiting.

Films like Thérèse Desqueyroux only exist because of financial support provided through “cultural exception” provisions which, as Agnès Poirier explained recently in the Guardian, are under threat in current US-EU trade negotiations. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times (£) also made a strong defence of the current arrangements:
France accepts that most global movies and TV shows will be in English. The exception culturelle simply aims to make sure that French culture gets funding too. The invisible hand of the market won’t do that. The death of French as a major language, and the collapse of foreign interest in France as anything but a resort-cum-food hall, means few foreign movie-goers now follow French films.  
… If Jean Renoir had made his Grande Illusion today instead of in 1937, its foreign audience might have consisted of 17 people in an art-house cinema in Greenwich Village.
A bit of an overstatement, but I sympathise with his conclusion:
This spat [in the trade negotiations] exemplifies a wider problem: French arguments on almost any topic get caricatured. Because the world doesn’t speak French, it rarely hears what the French say, and an Anglo-American narrative is disseminated in which France is cast as an irrational obstacle to progress. We saw that in the run-up to the Iraq war, and now with the transatlantic trade talks. The French need to do a better job of presenting their case in English. If foreigners heard French arguments, they might realise the French aren’t so backward after all.
As it is, the subtitles for Thérèse Desqueyroux are in American English (as usual) – so Bernard asks his wife for an ‘omelet’!

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