Film Reviews

Thérèse Desqueyroux & Hammer Horrors

Published April 13, 2013

William Eggleston, whose work is showing at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is known for introducing colour into contemporary art photography. It was not a popular innovation among his peers who were devoted to the medium of black-and-white. The unspoken wisdom is that the world seems far more profound when photographed in black-and-white, and irredeemably superficial in colour.
I thought of this perilous distinction after watching the new version of Thérèse Desqueyroux, by the late Claude Miller (1942-2012). This classic novel of 1927 by Francois Mauriac, was previously adapted by the great French director, Georges Franju, in 1962, with a screenplay by Mauriac and his son, Claude.
Mauriac admitted to being influenced by some of the techniques of the silent cinema when writing the book, notably the flashback which occupies two-thirds of the narrative. The black-and-white film on which he and Franju collaborated, which tells the story of one woman’s life in the provinces and how she tries to escape her fate,  is as sombre as a funeral. The main actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Philippe Noiret, could be playing in a Greek tragedy. It is a poetic approach, with Franju’s camera being continually drawn to shots of the forest, the skies and the trees. He emphasises the obsessive love of hunting that seems even more repulsive today when some 32 million birds are exterminated every year from the French countryside.
Miller’s remake of Thérèse Desqueyroux is naturally in colour, which gives a different ambience to the story. Not as stark and poetic as the 1962 version, it comes across as an exercise in cinematic realism, similar to those celebrated movies made from Marcel Pagnol stories, such as Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1986).
Miller dispenses with the long flashback and interior monologue that features in the novel and the Franju film. This simplifies the continuity and means the action is not presented to us exclusively through Thérèse’s eyes. Although Miller is just as faithful to Mauriac’s plot as Franju was, he has given us a movie that feels bitter rather than tragic. Thérèse’s motives are just as obvious, but she seems more dissociated as a personality.
This is partly the difference between Emmanuelle Riva and Audrey Tautou in the title role. Riva, who earned an Academy Award nomination this year for her work in L’Amour, is essentially a dramatic actress. Tautou came to the world’s attention in the comedy, Amelie (2001), and has continued to star in a succession of light-hearted films. As Thérèse Desqueyroux she is cast against type and proves she is equal to the challenge.
It is no less of a revelation to see Gilles Lellouche playing Thérèse’s uptight husband, Bernard. Philippe Noiret was brilliant at keeping a poker face, but Lellouche is more of an action man. In this film, he is transmuted into the embodiment of provincial respectability.
The story is yet another indictment of the narrowness and hyprocrisy of the French bourgeoisie. Despite being born and bred in a small rural district of France near Bordeaux, Thérèse thinks differently from the people around her. She has “ideas”, although we never learn anything specific about these heretic thoughts, beyond her suspicion that the life they lead is akin to death. It’s enough that Thérèse has a mind of her own and the kind of sceptical intelligence that questions the conventions of the local landowners.
Her marriage to Bernard Desqueyroux is taken for granted by everyone, herself included, as a natural union of two propertied families. Yet Bernard’s rigidity and the pettiness of his relatives soon begins to take a toll. When Bernard’s sister, Anne, becomes infatuated with an inappropriate boy – a Jew, no less, Thérèse is deputed to talk sense to the young man.
She finds to her surprise that Anne’s supposed suitor, Jean Azevedo (Stanley Webber), is no such thing. He is a young intellectual on a break from his studies in Paris, who regards the fling with Anne as a mere distraction. Thérèse’s conversations with Jean crystallise her awareness of own unhappiness, her own sense of being stifled by provincial life.
She embarks, like a sleepwalker, on a scheme to poison her husband. She acts without malice, almost in a spirit of scientific inquiry, but her actions lead to scandal and breakdown. As the family closes ranks around the criminal, her situation becomes even more claustrophobic – virtually a form of martyrdom. This would have been very much in the mind of Mauriac, known for his Catholic world view.
The skill of this film is that it does not paint Thérèse solely as a victim. In the book, Mauriac refers to her continually – albeit ironically – as a monster. It is important that she retains a hint of the monstrous, just as Bernard cannot be merely a provincial oaf. He is capable of a sympathy and understanding, although such traits are overshadowed by his inflexible belief in family values.
Claude Miller died of cancer shortly after completing Thérèse Desqueyroux, which stands as an elegant swansong to a distinguished career. It may be one of those stories best told in black-and-white, but the essence remains the same. It is a portrait of that colourless, bourgeois world which has driven so many French heroines to desperation. If Thérèse does not give way to an unruly passion it is because she is part of that world even as she rebels against it, with her hatred of this existence containing a element of self-hatred. Whatever the would-be murderess feels is kept bottled up as an antidote against the slow poison of everyday life.
My other options for this week were disappointing. Kon-Tiki, a Norwegian dramatisation of Thor Heyerdahl’s epic raft voyage across the pacific of 1947, is horribly stagey, spoilt by ham-fisted characterisation, clumsy dialogue and music that needlessly underlines each tiny movement in the plot. The story, however, is fascinating and the cinematography almost good enough to offset some of the movie’s more obvious faults. Almost.
Sleepwalk with Me, co-directed by American stand-up comedian, Mike Birbiglia, who also plays the lead role, is equally dissatisfying. Shot on a lightweight digital camera this film has the slightly dingy, low-key look we associate with Super 8 home movies. It tells the story of Matt, a stand-up comic, who resists the idea of getting married to his long-term girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Instead, he chooses to tour around the countryside making lame gags on stage, before returning to his hotel room to suffer increasingly drastic sleep disorders.
There are several pressing problems: the jokes are bad, the marriage dilemma is overstated, and Matt/Mike is an uninteresting slob. His main interest in life seems to be eating takeaway pizza.
It is more exciting to welcome seven new DVD/Blu-ray releases of classic horror films from Hammer Studios, distributed by Shock Entertainment. There is little that is genuinely shocking about a Hammer Horror nowadays but this doesn’t make these beautifully restored prints any less enjoyable. The stories are melodramatic and predictable, the acting is mannered, the special effects laughable, but for true aficionados of the B movie the Hammer productions are irresistible.
The featured films are: Rasputin the Mad Monk (Dir. Don Sharp, 1966), Quatermass and the Pit (Dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1967); two by Terence Fisher:  Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1968); and three by John Gilling: The Reptile (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967).
Hammer began its successful run of horror movies in the mid-1950s and continued until the mid-1970s, when the vogue petered out. The late Hammer Horrors such as To the Devil a Daughter (1976), which features a nude scene by the 15-year-old Natassja Kinski, are largely exercises in self-parody and gratuitous titillation. The company was dormant for years, but has recently been revived by Dutch owners, and has made five new horror films between 2008-2012.
All the movies in this new issue belong to the heyday of Hammer Studios, when it dominated the international market for horror cinema. Part of the pleasure of these films is their familiarity. The same actors, the same sets, even the same props recur from one movie to the next. The red velvet cushion in Dracula’s coffin in Dracula: Prince of Darkness turns up on the villain’s voodoo altar in The Plague of the Zombies. The dramatic music of James Bernard may be heard in three of these films, three more feature music by Don Banks. Every story is set in the Edwardian or late Victorian era, although locations vary from Russia to Egypt to Cornwall.
Hammer fans could not get enough of Christopher Lee, especially in the role of Dracula. In Prince of Darkness he appears in one of his most fearsome guises – a wordless monster, more beast than man, with bloodshot eyes. Yet his real over-the-top masterpiece, is his portrayal of Rasputin, “the mad monk”. Other favourites included Barbara Shelley, one of the scream queens of the cinema; and the reliable Michael Ripper, who appears in supporting roles in every second Hammer film. There is also an Australian connection, with Ray Barrett starring in The Reptile, Bud Tingwell in Dracula, and Nike Arrighi in The Devil Rides Out.
The Hammer Horrors were intended as popular entertainments, and held little prestige for serious actors at the time. Nowadays the survivors are proud of those films, which have begun to attract an inordinate amount of attention from historians and critics. It must be a nice feeling to have starred in a really trashy film and find, decades later, that you’ve made a work of art.
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Thérèse Desqueyroux, France, rated M, 110 mins
Hammer Horror: DVD/Blue-Ray, Shock Entertainment, released March 6, 2013

Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 13, 2013