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Musings on Films from Books, part 2

May 3, 2013

In the previous post I have examined three films and three books, this time I will analyze the choices made by the two directors – Georges Franju and Claude Miller – who have adapted into film the novel Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac.


Franju directed his adaptation in 1962, fifty years later we have got Miller’s one, both directors were involved into the screenplay – an indication of the personal involvement into the book and its cinematic realization. Working in 1962 gave a chance to Franju to work with Mauriac himself on the screenplay (which is credited to Franju, Mauriac and Claude Mauriac, the author’s eldest son, an author in hiw own right and a film critic) – for obvious reasons such a chance was precluded to Miller who wrote his screenplay alongside his longterm co-writer Natalie Carter. François Mauriac published Thérèse Desqueyroux in 1927: it’s the story of a depressed woman who tries to get rid of her husband overdosing him with Fowler’s solution – an arsenic compound, at the time it was considered a remedy for various illnesses, Mauriac inspiration came from a 1905 scandal in Bordeaux. The book is set into early 20th century France, Franju’s adaptation sets it at the time of its shooting – so we are into the early 60s – while Miller goes back to 1927, the year the book was published for the first time in France (we see Thérèse reading Voyage au Congo by André Gide which was published that same year). Basically Thérèse Desqueyroux is the story of a woman crushed by two sides of her personality: one side is represented by a woman who is willing to play the role the bourgeois society she lives in expects her to play, being a wife and a mother, on the other side she is well-read, she takes her inner life seriously and she has great expectations from life. These two sided cannot live together, unconsciously she finds a way out poisoning her husband.


In 1927 Mauriac – who in 1952 will be awarded the Nobel prize in literature – wrote his roman using narrative devices he borrowed from silent movies, Thérèse Desqueyroux is an audacious novel, but while Franju preserved much of its narrative complexity, Claude Miller has decided to tell the story in a chronologically linear way: no flashbacks, no changes of perspective, so making Thérèse the one and only character of the story, Franju constantly used Thérèse as voice-over, Miller too uses this technique but Thérèse’s words don’t match her on screen persona. I believe Thérèse Desqueyroux could have been set in our times, since its main theme is still relevant today: for many women having to choose between family and work is still a conundrum they have to face at every stage of their lives. Miller’s choice confines Thérèse’s inner conflict to the past, furthermore the choice to reduce the role played by the numerous characters surrounding her reduces the strength of this other conflict Thérèse has to face: the conflict between the fulfillment of her expectations and what the people around her expect from her.

The choices regarding the screenplay and the cinematic language are not the only ones that make Franju’s adaptation the better film, in my opinion the main weakness of Miller’s Thérèse Desqueyroux is to be found in its star: Audrey Tautou, she looks too old for the part, to the point that she could not play the scenes featuring the younger Thérèse, in 1962 Emmanuelle Riva played all her scenes including those ones where Tautou needed a substitute, to my astonishment looking at their biographies I realized Tautou and Riva were the same age when they interpreted Thérèse: 35. Looks aren’t the only problem with Tautou, Riva renders a multi-faceted Thérèse, we assist to her slow passage from a radiant young woman into a depressed one, Tautou wears a boring and bored expression all along the film, no nuance, nor feeling. Overall Thérèse Desqueyroux is an interesting example of how is difficult to adapt a book where the author has profusely employed cinematic techniques, reversing the process seems to be quite difficult, Miller has not even tried it, Franju has come close but his Thérèse remains all the same a film not much daring as its literary model, considering how popular is the book in France maybe one day there will be a filmmaker willing to face the challenge.


From → Musings on Film

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