A period drama as passionless as its long-suffering protagonist, Thérèse charts the unhappy union of Audrey Tautou and Gilles Lellouche, whose pine-bearing tycoon families compel them to marry as a means of consolidating and solidifying wealth and stature in the 1928 French countryside. Destined to be betrothed to Lellouche since childhood, Tautou accepts her fate willingly, though quiet acquiescence to parental dictates nonetheless soon results in corrosive unhappiness. The root cause of that malaise, however, is left frustratingly opaque by the film—the last by director Claude Miller (The Little Thief, A Secret)—which suggests as the source of Tautou’s discontent not only latent lesbian longing for her lifelong friend-cum-sister-in-law (Anaïs Demoustier) and a greedy hunger for full control of Lellouche’s pines, but also a desire for greater freedom from her in-laws’ domineering influence. Additionally, there’s a fleeting implication that Tautou craves the type of unfettered, ardent amour Demoustier shares with her young lover Stanley Weber, who nonchalantly expresses his own interest in pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Yet on this central issue, the film makes little concrete effort toward specificity, thus rendering its portrait of its main character so fuzzy that there’s no sense of urgency, or even clear purpose, to the eventual, homicidal path upon which she chooses to embark.
Based on François Mauriac’s acclaimed 1927 novel, which was previously adapted in 1962 by director Georges Franju, Thérèse abandons its source material’s flashback structure for a chronologically ordered narrative. That alteration drains the proceedings of some tension, but more problematic is simply the fact that Miller and co-screenwriter Natalie Carter never convincingly establish why Tautou would take such drastic—and obviously foolish—measures in order to escape her circumstances. Not helping matters is that Lellouche, though clearly depicted as more concerned with maintaining his family’s reputation than in adoring his wife, comes across as a detached but fundamentally decent husband, hardly deserving of the punishment he eventually receives from Tautou. His mildness is typical of the film as a whole, which Miller shoots with a bland stateliness, and which is dominated by a lead Tautou performance that’s all frumpy stoicism. A second-act forest fire proves a handy metaphor for Tautou’s slowly burning rage at confinement. Yet while it seems thematically apt, it’s also wholly out of place in this static, emotionless saga, which is defined less by zealous feeling than by a dull, decorous air of respectability.