“Film me while I die” is a completely extraordinary thing to ask, but it was the request made/challenge thrown down by French feminist activist Thérèse Clerc just a few months ago to documentarian Sébastien Lifshitz. Already on a friendly first-name basis following her participation in Lifshitz’s last Cannes title, “The Invisible Ones” (his César-winning feature-length documentary about aging gay-rights pioneers), Thérèse contacted Lifshitz as her terminal illness entered its final stages, and he filmed her practically to the end. Yet the title does not mislead: “The Lives of Thérèse” may be just 52 minutes long, and may have been occasioned by the foreknowledge of death, but it is about life — a life so enormous, in fact, that pluralizing the noun into “lives” feels less like a rhetorical device than a bald statement of fact.
If there is a converse to Socrates’ famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” it might be that a life as minutely examined as Thérèse’s, with such a lively sense of intellectual self-awareness, is worth living several times over. And it’s one of the first things her four children, now grown and with families of their own, agree upon (according to Lifshitz, this was during the very first interview he did with them for the film): “We all had different mothers.” Each one of them represents a different phase of Thérèse’s life, and is the product of a different approach to parenting as she changed and evolved with time.
From the dawning of her political awareness as a self-confessedly complacent 1950s housewife and mother (“I was so… subdued,” she recalls with horrified amusement) through her involvement with Theosophy, Marxism, Catholicism and of course the nascent feminist movement, Thérèse emerges as a voraciously intelligent and committed activist, ever willing to put herself on the front line of the causes that caught her imagination and awoke her instincts for social justice. There is even a very funny interlude when she discusses her era of feminism with her articulate and engaged granddaughter: Thérèse came out as lesbian fairly late in life and credits the more militant element of the women’s movement, which argued that true equality could only exist in same-sex relationships, with that epiphany. When her granddaughter argues the point from a modern perspective, “I am not a lesbian, but that doesn’t make me a fake feminist,” Thérèse appears wholly unconvinced. Lifshitz does a fine job of making present-day Thérèse, her mind still sharp for all her frailty and hoarseness, seems like a culmination of all the Thérèses who came before.
It is unusual enough to see women of this age celebrated and honored in any form onscreen, but that “The Lives of Thérèse” does it in such a heartbreakingly unsentimental manner approaches the transcendent. And it’s not that Lifshitz reinvents the documentary wheel (a great deal of the information is carried in voiceover interviews, chatty sessions with her children, archival footage and old photographs). But there is also a powerful current of friendship, admiration and farewell in those moments where Lifshitz simply rests his camera on Thérèse’s lined, beautiful face and watches her breathing, nodding off, sleeping. His profound affection is almost palpable, as is his powerful sweet-sad comment on the loveliness of life, even at its painful end.
Thérèse died exactly three months prior to the film’s first screening in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, a fact that added extra poignancy to the occasion, extra drama as editing was ongoing practically up to the day of the screening, as well as probably an extra level of teary warmth to the rousing, unending ovation it received. But recency alone can’t account for just how insightful, witty and profoundly moving “The Lives of Thérèse” is: for the majority of that the credit goes to Lifshitz and his magnificently compelling, unself-pitying subject. Considering the film runs under an hour and drops the curtain with a wrenching suddenness, perhaps the only complaint the audience could have had was that it ended too soon and too abruptly.