Tag Archives: identity

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.

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Cautiva (2003)

 “Why would I want to know?”

cautivaCautiva is an extremely effective Argentinean film that focuses on the plight of the approximately 30,000 ‘Disappeared’ victims of the right-wing military junta that ruled the country between 1976-1983. These victims of the so-called Dirty War were grabbed from their homes and off the streets and simply vanished in one of several prisons. The victims were never tried or convicted of any crimes, but instead they were tortured and usually murdered in prison, or taken on Death Flights (weighted and dumped from airplanes in to the ocean). In spite of the fact that most of the victims of the Dirty War never made it out of the prisons, the few who survived tell of systematic torture and abuse. Argentina’s President Menem granted pardons to most of those guilty of the Dirty War murders, but an interesting situation arose: many pregnant women snatched by the junta gave birth in jail before being murdered. What happened to those babies? The search for the missing children of the Disappeared became pivotal to the issue of pardons for torturers. The kidnapping of the babies and children of the Disappeared was not ‘covered’ by Menem’s pardon, and so discovering the fate of these stolen children became an alternate method of uncovering and publicizing the revolting details of the military junta’s actions.

The film Cautiva looks at the fallout of the Dirty war through an inadvertent victim–Cristina Quadri (Barbara Lombardo). When the film begins, she’s the adored only child of an affluent couple–Pablo (Osvaldo Santoro, a retired Captain of the Federal Police, and his wife Adela (Silvia Bayle). While at school one day, Cristina is told that her parents were two of the Disappeared, and that the Quadris are not her real parents. A judge sends her to live with her maternal grandmother.

Cautiva really is an excellent, powerful film that handles its subject matter with sensitivity. While Cristina initially rejects the knowledge that the Quadris illegally adopted her, she gradually comes to realize the truth. The young actress who plays the part of Cristina Quadri/Sofia Lombardi plays the role with understated grace, and never milks the audience for sympathy. There’s a sort of rough justice to the fact that the Quadris lose ‘their’ stolen child and then have the gall to squawk about their rights. A few scenes indicate that Pablo still imagines that he can snap his fingers and order the killings of those he dislikes, and a confrontational scene between Cristina and the Quadris establishes their justification for their hideous actions. When everyone shies away from telling Cristina the details of her parents’ brutal deaths, she seeks answers on her own. Finally she realizes that for the past 16 years, a web of deceit has been carefully woven around her, and that she’s been robbed of her parents, her identity, and even her name. She lives in a country in which mass murderers are shielded “by laws to protect them from subsequent democratic governments.”

Since the film begins with a scene of Kissinger in Argentina at the 1978 World Cup as a guest of General Videla, we should get the idea that military torturers have friends in high places. In fact the largest torture center in Argentina–the ESMA was just 1000 meters away from the stadium. In Spanish with subtitles, Cautiva is directed by Gaston Biraben.

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Filed under Argentinean, Political/social films

Despair (1978)

 “Intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality.”

despairOn the surface, Hermann Hermann, a well-to-do chocolate factory owner, appears to lead an envious life. He lives in a beautiful Berlin apartment, drives around in a chauffeur driven car, dresses immaculately and expensively, and tastes chocolate samples all day long. However, the reality of the situation shows that the factory is close to bankruptcy, and his vulgar wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferreol), is chronically unfaithful to Hermann with her appalling cousin (Volker Spengler), a talentless artist who bleeds Hermann for money every chance he gets. Hermann appears to cope with his depressing life, but when he meets a total stranger who resembles Freud (in reality, he’s an insurance salesman), Hermann confides an interest in “disassociation” (“the man who stands outside himself”) and even muses whether or not he’ll write a book “or two” on the subject. The fact that Hermann considers writing two books is crucial to his mental state, for Hermann has created an alter ego. While Hermann is engaged in various activities, his voyeuristic alter ego observes, so Hermann becomes the audience for his own life. As Hermann descends into madness, his life spirals out of control. Ironically, he imagines he has control of his life by scripting it a certain way. He’s coped for years by scripting his marriage as happy, and ignoring his wife’s blatant affair, and now he imagines he can think his life into a new creation. Hermann devises a plan to defraud his insurance company by murdering a destitute man named Felix (Klaus Lowitsch). Hermann imagines that Felix could be his identical twin–when in reality the two men do not look alike at all.

The story of Hermann’s descent into madness is juxtaposed against the rise of National Socialism in Germany of the 1930s. Hermann witnesses the increase of brown shirts, swastikas, and the flagrant persecution of the Jews. Hermann is obviously disturbed by these events, and his madness and denial deepens to tragic levels.

Despair (Eine Reise ins Licht) is a lesser known Fassbinder film based on a novel by Nabokov (hence the prevalent theme of identity). The film is, oddly enough, in English–although some of the actors have thick, German accents. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for the film, and the incredibly talented Dirk Bogarde stars as Hermann Hermann, the beleaguered owner of a Berlin chocolate factory. Despair is a must-see for Fassbinder fans. Despair is not as emotionally powerful as The Marriage of Maria Braun or The Stationmaster’s Wife, but it’s an excellent study of madness that perhaps only Dirk Bogarde and Fassbinder can deliver. Fassbinder aficionados will notice the director’s ever-present death-obsession in this brilliant study of one man’s decline. Fassbinder, Nabokov, Bogarde, and Stoppard: what an incredible combination….

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Filed under Fassbinder, German