Updating François Mauriac’s 1927 novel, Georges Franju’s Thérèse Desqueyroux shifts its sphere of thematic reference from sin and expiation to a woman’s interiority, from Roman Catholicism to a fusion of the existential and the lyrical.
Accompanied by her solemn voiceover, Thérèse Desqueyroux’s flashbacks account for much of the film. Thérèse is acquitted of her real attempts to murder her husband, Bernard, by poisoning him, and that her acquittal follows his perjured testimony at trial ironically underscores his control over her. As punishment, Bernard banishes her from their mansion, imprisoning her in separate quarters on his country estate; but even he is moved to discover, when he finally can bring himself to look upon her, that she has deteriorated almost to the point of death. Suddenly his coldness melts; but this unexpected about-face yet again shows how dependent Thérèse is on him.
Pauline Kael thinks that Thérèse poisons Bernard because he is dull. He is complacent, self-absorbed, overbearing. He gulps down soup and wine, and then turns the back of his chair to Thérèse to nod off facing the fire. He cares nothing about his wife’s feelings. Facing her, he holds a bird by both legs as it flaps and flutters wildly; Thérèse feels she is looking into a mirror of their marriage. She poisons Bernard to see, for once, uncertainty in his eyes.
What filmmaking! A pan of the grounds comes to a stop that Franju holds—an anticipation of Thérèse’s feeling of imprisonment. In her husband’s prison an open window provides Thérèse with a draught of freedom: the wind singing through the trees. When Bernard releases her to Paris, another shot of these trees dissolves into a shot of bustling Parisian humanity.
Claiming here her greatest role, Emmanuèlle Riva (best actress, Venice) is phenomenal.
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