A free-spirited Frenchwoman, whose life is slowly poisoned by the expectations of the Catholic landed gentry on the 1928 Atlantic Coast, gives her husband a taste of his own medicine in “Therese Desqueyroux,” a low-pulse adaptation of the novel by Nobel Prize winner Francois Mauriac. The last feature from the late Claude Miller (“A Secret,” “Class Trip”) stars an ashen-faced Audrey Tautou and is tastefully upholstered, but the narrative, told in linear fashion rather than using the book’s flashback structure, generates little heat, empathy or momentum. Beyond Francophone venues, indiscriminating “Masterpiece Theater” fans could somewhat alleviate the B.O. pain.
Mauriac’s most famous novel has been adapted once before, by helmer Georges Franju in 1962; that film, co-written by the author, respected the book’s original in-media-res opening, right after Desqueyroux’s trial on charges of attempting to poison her husband. Story arc then proceeded to turn the initial impression of an absolved criminal (courtesy of some false testimonies to save her family’s reputation) into a scathing portrait of an overly oppressive society, obsessed with religion, reputation and resources and unwilling to let women be sufficiently independent.
But frequent adapter Miller, who filmed only two original screenplays in his four-decade career, here opts for an entirely chronological approach that has the unfortunate effect of burying the poisoning scenes and aftermath in the pic’s second half, leaving the first without a clear focus or framework.
Little Therese (Alba Gaia Bellugi), whose family owns large pine forests in the Landes, near Bordeaux, already knows in 1922 that she’s probably destined to marry Bernard Desqueyroux, the son of the landowners next door. Bulk of the pic is set in 1928 and 1929, when the nuptials of Therese (Tautou, who looks three times the age of Bellugi) and Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche) kick off a year of going through the newlywed motions, with both aware that money and family interests are the reason for their alliance, far more than something as silly as love or even compatibility.
It’s quite clear from Therese’s haggard-looking face that matrimony is not exactly bliss, but in Miller and Natalie Carter’s screenplay, Therese’s actions often remain psychologically inscrutable. There are hints of a crypto-Sapphic attraction between Therese and her best friend, Anne (Anais Demoustier), but when pregnant Therese takes a romantic interest in Anne’s Portuguese lover (Stanley Weber, more wooden than the surrounding pines), it’s unclear whether she has fallen in love with a man for the first time, is out to destroy Anne’s happiness, or is simply curious about this thing called passionate sex Anne keeps telling her about.
Too many repetitive shots of Bernard drinking his arsenic-laced medicine clue in those slow on the uptake (or unfamiliar with the novel) that Therese’s up to something, but her not-directly-motivated revenge remains enigmatic, despite the fact that auds by this point will have spent more than an hour looking at a film named after the perpetrator.
Tautou’s emotionally distant performance might be period-specific but doesn’t facilitate access to her character’s mind, not even in the occasional v.o. Lellouche, whose character has been severely defanged from the original, comes across as the 1928 equivalent of a couch potato, hardly someone worth poisoning.
Shot in a muted color palette by Miller’s regular d.p., Gerard de Battista, and with matching period trappings by production designer Laurence Brenguier, the film is restrained and remote even on a visual level.