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For aging cinephiles, Claude Miller’s adaptation of Thérèse Desqueyroux (released 11/4/2013 - in Australia as THÉRÈSE D ) inevitably recalls George Franju’s 1962 version of the same story. Franju’s was the first of his feature films to be screened here in Australia, though his shorts were known and, in the case of Le Sang des Betes, had a fearsome reputation, writes Geoff Gardner*. 

Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962) was first screened at the 1964 Melbourne Film Festival. The Palais was packed to the rafters as always, some 2000 plus seats being occupied for its single screening. The local distributor of the film, Robert Kapferer, would not have received a penny for the privilege of supplying his beautiful new print. It was one of 37 features screened that year, alongside 113 shorts. Other features screened included Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Fellini’s 8 ½, Glauber Rocha’s Barravento, Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, Francesco Rosi’s Hands Across the City, Andrzej Munk’s Passenger, Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge, Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth, and a film by the almost forgotten Polish master Kazimierz Kutz, Silence. As well the festival had quite a number of films from earlier times ranging from the near recent like Bergman’s So Close to Life and Antonioni’s Il Grido all the way back to Foolish Wives, The Blue Angel and E A Dupont’s Variety. George Lugg was functioning at his peak. 

At the time the French New Wave movies were coming to art house screens in fits and starts. There had been a single Godard, Vivre sa Vie, Truffaut’s first three films, several Chabrols, Hiroshima Mon Amour and any number of others that exhibitors called New Wave pictures in their advertising by minor directors like Philippe de Broca. Rohmer, Rivette, Rozier, Varda and other major figures were completely unknown. Franju’s part in the New Wave was a most interesting one even if he was outside the various cliques. His name had been known widely for decades because of his shorts but also because of the role he had played with Henri Langlois in establishing the Cinematheque Francaise in 1937. 

"derived from the surrealist and anarchist traditions of French culture and society"

Franju’s politics and aesthetics were a little to one side of the brash and enthusiastic younger guns who congregated around Cahiers du Cinema. His ideas were derived from the surrealist and anarchist traditions of French culture and society. He was also an archivist and cinephile long before he became a major film-maker. David Thomson’s dictionary mentions that throughout World War 2 Franju served as secretary of the International Federation of Film Archives. Unfortunately nobody seems to have taken on the task of writing an essay on the director for Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors section so the only further references I can provide are the long out of print book authored by the legendary Raymond Durgnat published in 1968 by Movie and more recently a book by Kate Ince.

Franju’s Therese was his fourth feature but back in 1964 none had been screened here. Cinephiles were especially denied the pleasures of his notorious second feature Eyes Without a Face and many of us never saw that film until its release on DVD. Not long after Therese was screened somehow or other MGM acquired the director’s 1961 Plein Feux sur L’Assassin/Spotlight on Murder and gave it a release in Melbourne at the suburban Metro Malvern for a solitary week. Commercially that was it for the director. The festivals continued to screen his work throughout the sixties and we piled into the Palais for, in succession, Judex, Thomas the Imposter and The Sin of Abbe Mouret. He has remained a coterie taste to this day and somebody could do a lot worse than mount a full scale retrospective of his films. As it is dogged collectors continue to keep some semblance of his memory alive and you can get what are unofficial copies of many of his films from unlikely sources, often involving the use of home-made though reasonably effective subtitles. For one such source send an email and assistance may be at hand at quite modest prices. 

"discussing Louis Malle’s Les Amants"

Some time ago when I was discussing Louis Malle’s Les Amants with someone French I was told that that film was one of the great expressions of the loathing of the provinces and of upper-middle class provincial life by the cultured people of Paris. The theme of the provincial stultifying patriarchy, the parsimony, the hypocrisy, the treatment of women as objects, were best exemplified in that film. Other films which explored the subject included Peter Brook’s adaptation of the Marguerite Duras novel Moderato Cantabile (also with Jeanne Moreau) and Franju’s Therese Desqueyroux. That film, and the new version, are derived from Francois Mauriac’s 1927 novel. 

Franju’s film was scripted by the director with Mauriac and Mauriac’s son Claude. Francois Mauriac is credited as the author of the film’s dialogue and, without having read the novel, I assume that much of that dialogue is taken from the book. The fact that identical phrases and sentences appear in Miller’s new adaptation would seem confirmation of that. Franju set his film in the austere black and white present though the only apparent updating would seem to be that the cars are those of 1962. Miller takes his gorgeous colour back to the twenties and we get all the rigmarole of loving, and expensive, period recreation. The houses in the Miller film are much more grand and the costumes have all the artifice and elegant detail that bespeaks a generous budget. 

In Franju’s version, Therese and Bernard’s home is smaller, more cosy and with a lived in feel. You don’t get the idea that there are actors squatting in expensive heritage sets. The strongest memory/scene takes place in the kitchen cum dining room. There is an open fire. In a dinner scene a meal is eaten in silence and when Bernard (Philippe Noiret) finishes eating he simply turns the chair round to face the fire place and, places his back to the table and to his still eating wife, closes his eyes and tries to fall asleep. The effect is brutal. 

One other major difference is also apparent. In the later film, possibly because we are back in 1927, much is made of the patriarchal arrangement whereby Therese’s property, her pine plantation, becomes a part of Bernard’s once they are married. She loses it all. It’s explained in some detail. While the point is made in the Franju version I wonder whether by 1962, the inheritance law might have changed. Whatever, by the end of both films the husband, sadder and slightly wiser in both cases, is in control of the estate. 

"the eventual descent into ennui"

Finally I must confess to thinking that both the actresses playing Therese, Emmanuelle Riva (recently seen in her award winning role in Michael Haneke’s Amour) and Audrey Tautou give remarkable performances. For both, the early knowledge of the mediocre fate that is planned for them, the eventual descent into ennui and the final tentative liberation is superbly conveyed. Both also have reduced their remarkable and usually beautiful faces into something plainer so that each truthfully bears the remark uttered as an aside in both films that they are “Not that pretty”!

* Geoff Gardner was director of the Melbourne Film Festival from January 1980 to August 1982.

Published April 25, 2013

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Therese D stars Audrey Tautou

Therese Desqueyroux (1962), stars Emmanuelle Riva

Georges Franju

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