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In 2001, Amélie introduced Audrey Tautou to the world. But if just the thought of that film and its cloyingly cute star makes your teeth hurt, the antidote is Thérèse. The late Claude Miller’s final, leisurely drama, which he adapted along with Natalie Carter from a novel (though it’s also a remake of a 1962 film), features Tautou as the title character, a Frenchwoman who in the late 1920s is arranged to marry the brother of her best friend, Anne (Anaïs Demoustier, Elles), so that two wealthy families can consolidate their pine-dominated land.
Though Thérèse acts happy about the arrangement, there’s not a single spark between her and Bernard (Gilles Lellouche). Their flirtation consists of lines such as “You love my pines, too”—-and it’s not a euphemism.
There are also several references to unspecified “ideas” that flood Thérèse’s head, ones that she hopes marriage will “destroy.” No clear explanation is given; the closest is Bernard’s opinion that some of her ideas are “wrong” and that she’s too strong-minded, like her father. The script leans heavily on this characteristic in the early scenes before the wedding, yet it’s all but forgotten from then on.
While Thérèse seems to welcome the thought of a structured, stable, polite-society life, Anne wishes for passion, and finds it in a handsome Portuguese man whom her family disapproves of because he may be Jewish.
Apparently, Anne’s love makes Thérèse finally feel her lack of it, and she gets depressed and a bit looney. But you’ll have to glean this from the way other characters react to her: Aside from the opening scenes that show Thérèse and Anne giggling as young girls, Tautou’s Thérèse is solemn, even dour, throughout.
But when she has a child—-whom Anne largely takes care of—-and is increasingly irritated by Bernard’s habits, such as counting out loud medicinal drops he takes for chest pains every day, Thérèse does morph: from the merely forlorn to the walking dead. Yet Tautou simply grimaces throughout, occasionally walking a bit slower to express Thérèse’s growing unhappiness.
Miller films Tautou with bags under her eyes and a matronly bun, which very nearly makes her look plain. (Quick, give her an Oscar for playing ugly!) Her Thérèse even has a Baby Jane moment when she really goes south. The image is startling, yes, but it’s one of only a handful of scenes during this snoozy marriage-as-prison story that elicits any emotion. (A few fantasy sequences that are made to look as if they’re actually happening are other highlights.)
Thérèse picks up the pace in its last third, with a scandal livening things up. For the most part, though, the film mirrors its lifeless heroine, following the familiar, nearly clichéd story line’s rules so strictly that it telegraphs its every turn.