Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962)

“I only remember loathing my husband even more than usual.”

Thérèse Desqueyroux, a 1962 black & white film from director Georges Franju, is based on the book by Francois Mauriac. The film begins with the acquittal of Thérèse Desqueyroux who’s been charged with the attempted murder of her husband, Bernard. We are not privy to the trial–instead the story picks up as Thérèse leaves the deserted Palais de Justice in the company of her lawyer. Thérèse’s father waits for them in the distance, and while an acquittal should be good news, Thérèse’s father doesn’t greet his daughter. Instead he shuffles her off in a chauffeur driven car admonishing her that she’s already damaged the family enough.

On the drive back to her home, Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) recalls the events that led to the accusation of attempted murder, and it’s a stroke of irony that the evidence of the intended victim, Bernard (Philippe Noiret), is the one thing that saves Thérèse from imprisonment. The film segues to Thérèse’s moody youth and idyllic days spent with her companion, Anne (Edith Scob). Anne is convent-educated, and Thérèse notes that Anne’s purity is “still largely down to ignorance. The Ladies at the Sacre Coeur placed 1000 veils between reality and their daughters.”

Thérèse, the richest girl in the area, then marries the very stodgy Bernard. One of the reasons for the marriage, Thérèse claims is “to have the joy” of Anne as a sister-in-law. People marry for worse reasons, but Thérèse’s passivity in the acceptance of her fate appears to play a part in the marriage which is welcomed by both families. Naturally the marriage is a disaster, and Thérèse grasps all of its ramifications only after the honeymoon which includes her husband’s “nocturnal inventions.” Thérèse  seems doomed to accept the boring life demanded of her by Bernard and his family, but this all changes when she meets the young man Anne loves, Jean (Sami Frey), someone with whom she can discuss Chekhov.

There’s an unexplored tantalizing undercurrent of lesbianism between Anne and Thérèse which would appear to be endorsed by Thérèse’s repulsive sexual experiences with Bernard. The plot doesn’t pursue this early hint, and ultimately Thérèse remains an enigma–even to herself . Just as Thérèse isn’t exactly sure why she married Bernard–a man who bores her to tears, neither is she clear why she tried to poison him.

The film emphasises the idea of hypocrisy–Bernard and Thérèse’s families are more concerned with appearances than anything else, so Thérèse is ‘freed’ from the legal consequences of her act only to face even worse condemnation at home. One scene however struck a false note. Thérèse returns home after the case is dismissed and teases herself with the possibility that Bernard would open his arms to her and ask no questions. That seems either impossibly naive (which Thérèse isn’t) or deranged. After all, what husband is going to accept a wife back at his side, in his bed as before, or even worse–cooking his food–when you’ve tried to off him by overdoing the arsenic?

While the book was published in 1927,  the film is set in the 60s. And the updating begs the question: why is an independently wealthy young woman corralled into marriage with a man she finds loathsome? Still in spite of that flaw, the film has aged well and Thérèse, whose main problem according to her in-laws is her intelligence,  is seen as a feminist heroine who is given no options–or at least considers no options–except marriage to a complete bore.  While marriage is seen by Thérèse” as a “refuge,” ultimately, as she’s absorbed into Bernard’s family, she loses all sense of identity and individuality.

Director Claude Miller has a remake in progress of the film which will star Audrey Tautou as Thérèse.

Thanks to www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

6 Comments

Filed under France

6 responses to “Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962)

  1. Your review makes me want to re-read the book and watch the film. I read this book as a teenager and I still remember it. It was in my Mom’s paperbacks. I’m not sure Mauriac is often read nowadays.
    I also wonder if the film is faithful to the book.
    I can’t imagine Audrey Tautou as Thérèse.
    I think you’d like Le Noeud de Vipères too.

    About the 60s and why Bernard is stuck in that marriage. It’s De Gaulle time in France, very conservative. I’m not certain that divorce was commonly accepted. When Romain Gary divorced Lesley Blanch to marry Jean Seberg, he had to quit diplomacy. De Gaulle didn’t want divorced diplomats.

    • Makes me want to read it too. Therese’s family and in laws come across as very conservative, stifling would be another word.

      I see Le Noeud de Vipères is based on another Mauriac novel. Don’t know if I can find a copy these days but will try.

      • Actually, by Noeud de Vipères, I meant the book. I didn’t know there was a film. You’re going to enjoy the nasty family relationships.

        I remember I pitied Thérèse a lot when I read the book.

        • I have the book and its translated title is Nest of Vipers–although I have seen other versions of the title. The film is a French-made-for-television version so there’s little chance of getting that.

  2. Audrey Tautou doesn’t work for me as Thérèse. I had a Mauriac phase I liked his books but they are quite gloomy. Emmanuelle Riva isn’t a bad choice but I’ve just seen her in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

  3. Riva as Therese offers a very interesting performance. She’s cool and detached but there are obviously depths to her character that are not simple or even very nice. I’ll watch the Tautou film as I won’t be able to resist.

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