Look to the Lady
By Julien Allen

Dir. Claude Miller, France, MPI Pictures

When Steven Spielberg was asked—while doing press for Close Encounters of the Third Kind—about his experience of working with François Truffaut, he replied with a smile and a shrug: “He’s just a simple guy. . . like his films”. With this apparently heretical faint praise, he had actually alighted upon one of the characteristics of the French master’s work which most endeared him to the French public—and which set him apart from his New Wave colleagues without ever diminishing his stature amongst them. For in the hands of a gifted craftsman such as Truffaut (or Ozu, or even Spielberg himself), simplicity never means predictability or fatuity—rather it represents the recognition and valorization of only the most essential components of a story, married to a keen eye for the right image, movement, or detail (filmed with just the appropriate amount of emphasis) to chaperone the audience’s response. One of the areas where Truffaut most differed from Godard, for example, was in his refusal to rely on structural devices to tell stories (even flashback was rarely employed), but instead to challenge his audience to embrace as best they could only the most fundamental, verifiable truths of the human condition. He would have seen more to challenge an audience in a single, lengthy shot of children watching a puppet show than in any number of narrative flashbacks, intertitles, or clever dissolves.

But in the hands of lesser artists, simplicity and economy of style can be a dangerous game. The late Claude Miller, who died of cancer a few weeks after his film Thérèse was completed, was a close collaborator of Truffaut’s, having acted as production manager on all of his films between 1969 and 1975, following earlier stints as assistant director on Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Godard’s Weekend. Notwithstanding a creditable body of work which briefly peaked in the 1980s with his “adolescent trilogy,” two of which (L’effrontée and La petite voleuse) starred a teenaged Charlotte Gainsbourg, Miller’s real legacy to French cinema may ultimately be his activism on behalf of what has come to be known as le cinéma du milieu (“the cinema of the middle”). The expression—by necessity an industrial one, since the plea that gave rise to it was for their funding not to be squeezed—refers to those films which aim neither too high nor too low, cost neither too much nor too little, but seek to bring valuable, if not necessarily saleable, stories to a cinema audience with a limpidly straightforward, linear narrative style: in other words, reaching big audiences without selling their souls.

In contemplating this idea, the dreaded word “middlebrow” will inevitably buzz like a neon sign in most readers’ heads, and perhaps justifiably so, were it not for the fact that the French actually do this sort of thing rather well. For example, Pascale Ferran (who herself coined the “cinema of the middle” phrase in a mordant speech at the César awards in 1997) made the rather beautiful Lady Chatterley with precisely that approach in mind. Far from perpetrating a rebirth of the genre Truffaut once discredited in print—the cinéma de papa—the proponents of the cinema of the middle (none more vocal than Miller) saw Truffaut as their spiritual guide, crediting him with an uncanny ability to achieve great public affection despite never compromising his own approach. In the unlikely event that the cinema of the middle ever becomes more than just a slogan—a rallying cry for a French film industry in the doldrums—and graduates into an artistic statement, then Thérèse is a credible witness for its defense, but not much more.

Based on the powerfully engaged novel by Nobel laureate François Mauriac, Thérèse Desqueyroux, the film tells the story of a woman stifled by an arranged marriage, who resorts to poisoning her husband in an attempt to escape it. In a story set between the world wars in the coastal Landes region of southwest France (which contain Europe’s largest manmade forest, and where the value of a man is measured in the number of maritime pines his family owns), Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) marries Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), a rich but fatally simple-minded landowner, so that their respective acreages can be combined. The relationship, in real terms, will last no longer than a disastrous, disillusioning honeymoon in Baden-Baden, where Thérèse endures a colossally disappointing first night with her husband and confronts him verbally the next morning, in a manner he simply cannot comprehend. From beginning to end, this couple will prove themselves incapable of relating to each other on almost any level, even in their all-too-brief moments of tenderness. Thérèse, more cultivated and emancipated than Bernard, simply refuses to play the game. Having wrestled since childhood with her “too many thoughts” and her long-held faith that they would be “put right” by her marriage having completely evaporated, one summer, as the intense heat seems to anaesthetize her conscience, Thérèse begins to administer Bernard's medicine (which contains arsenic) in larger and larger doses.

Continuing a peculiarly French obsession with the figure of the empoisonneuse (female poisoner) from Locusta through Dumas’s Madame de Villefort and the real life story of Violette Nozière (filmed by Chabrol with Isabelle Huppert in 1978), the novel is heavy with religious and political implication, denouncing the corrosive effects of class, institutionalized greed and organized religion on womanhood in the early part of the twentieth century. Thérèse is a spiritual successor of Madame Bovary, but in reverse: she yearns for, but then utterly rejects the possibility of romantic love and is imprisoned, first figuratively—in her marriage—then literally. Her husband arranges her acquittal from the charges of murdering him, to enable the family to save face, then punishes her with solitary confinement in her own home, as much for her radical views as for her apparent bloodlust.

Suffering with cancer and knowing he was close to the end, Miller allowed himself the largesse of tackling a story that had already been essayed in 1962 by no less a figure than Georges Franju. Considering the pedigree of what went before (Franju’s version, available on YouTube, starred a glacially beautiful Emmanuelle Riva as Thérèse and was lit by Christian Matras, the immense cinematographer of Grand Illusion and The Earrings of Madame de…), Miller must have had his reasons for not being overly concerned at the prospect of revisiting canonical material of this kind. It appears that there were two: firstly the knowledge of his own impending death, which he attested had liberated him from all the usual pressures of filmmaking, and secondly his unshakeable belief in the ability of Audrey Tautou to inhabit the personality of Thérèse. In the latter respect, his confidence is entirely rewarded. One might go so far as to say that Tautou is the film, so wholly does its success repose on her command of —and approach to—the role. Her Thérèse is radically unpleasant, egotistical, impatient, and utterly disdainful of society’s behavioral expectations (an aggressive smoker, she insists on stubbing her butts out in the parched forest during a heat wave, as if summoning out of spite the very flames which will later arrive to devastate their holdings) and by the same token her take on the character is dismissive of any easy audience affinity. Even Tautou's notorious gamine face is disfigured by what becomes a permanent scowl. Rather than this making it harder to sympathize with Thérèse during her persecution in the second half of the film, to Miller’s credit he figured correctly that the sight of Thérèse gradually reduced from a spitting cobra to a dying bird (an emotional and physical transformation) is all the instinctive sympathy triggering we would need. At her lowest point, Tautou begins to resemble one of Bernard Buffet’s portraits of Annabel (barely) come to life, with hooded eyes and scrawny limbs. On top of her exclusion from society, Thérèse’s from-childhood relationship with her sister-in-law, Anne (a stirring turn by Anaïs Demoustier, taking the role played by Edith Scob in the Franju version), is compromised first by Anne’s own exile (her punishment for falling in love with a Jew, Jean Azevedo; Sami Frey in the original, weakly played by Stanley Weber here) and Thérèse’s rejection of her own baby daughter, which Anne cannot forgive. This deprives Thérèse of her unique source of emotional support, at the most crucial time.

On occasion it is hard to avoid the feeling that it is Tautou doing most of the work to pull the film back from the brink, time and again, of indulging in the sort of academistic nonsense perpetrated back in the day by the dubious progenitors of the cinéma du milieu, Claude Berri (Jean de Florette) and Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Lover). From the beginning, Thérèse has the slightly acrid aroma of a film that closes a Cannes festival (as it did this year): the roots of the attractively salt-washed Landes pines shown over the titles are garlanded with flowers; the period costumes radiate cleanliness and hyperreal color (and not in a good way, this is no Technicolor Archers palette) such that the film appears to positively revel in the very environment it is trying to critique. But this perception might on reflection be a trifle unfair. Occasional moments of cinema are afforded us by Miller's restraint and ability to keep it simple, relying partly on audience familiarity with the text and a certain flair for detail. During the childhood scenes, subtle shots of the back of Anne's neck and Thérèse's legs do no more than evoke the potentially Sapphic nature of the girls’ relationship, strongly suggested by the novel and practically trumpeted in Franju's version. Another highlight is when Bernard first has a seizure in the yard while holding a net of birds he has caught—he drops the net of birds to the ground and they struggle along with him. These moments are at odds with the grammar of the flabby crowd-pleasing studio concoction. A long sequence in the village where Bernard takes part in a parade reminds us of Miller’s past tendency (especially in films like 1983’s Mortelle Randonnée) to sprinkle the glitter of a New Wave aesthetic onto basic Hollywood product without incorporating any meaning—an example of why it simply isn’t enough to cherry-pick elements of Truffaut’s philosophy; you also need his eye and ear to make it all click.

Whilst Miller’s Thérèse can only really hold a candle to Franju’s (whose dramatization of the sheer mind-boggling corruption and venality of small-town politics was deliciously unforgiving), a comparison of Tautou’s performance with Riva’s evokes an equivalent (if opposing) comparison between Janet Leigh’s playing of Marion Crane and that of Anne Heche, in Gus Van Sant’s remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The initial gut punch of Psycho was in showing a confident, formidable heroine, a star, brutally murdered, but Van Sant embraced the fact that his audience knew the story by heart, so recast Marion as a sweet, vulnerable, and tragic victim, one of many casting decisions that transform the tonal approach of a film which was otherwise a shot-for-shot remake. By contrast, Riva played Thérèse as a lovable free-spirit unfairly snuffed out and was a transparently tragic victim from the start (the story in the Franju version is told, like the novel, in flashback starting with her return from trial, utterly disempowered), whilst Miller, aware of the audience’s expectations, opts for a more robust, risky, and modern view of Thérèse’s personality. The implication is that even if you don’t agree with or even like Thérèse, her oppression is symbolically unconscionable. In this respect at least, the film wins its bet. The final sequence, like the novel, shows Bernard battling to understand her still, but she gives us no easy reasons because she does not have them herself—she is left alone, free from the social constraints of her past life, but still in hock to her own impulsive and rebellious nature.

Miller's obituarists were not slow to point out his ability to coax memorable performances from his leading actresses (Gainsbourg, Adjani, Schneider) in the numerous stories of female persecution he brought to the screen. Sandrine Kiberlain, who starred in his Betty Fisher, put it simply: he was “madly in love with actresses.” A fitting epitaph for Miller is that Thérèse consecrates his translation of this "mad love" into a deep cinematic appreciation of feminine qualities, which other obsessive directors, such as Hitchcock, entirely lacked. In this respect at least, he was Truffaut's star pupil.