Shaking off cutesy for dour, Audrey Tautou plays the title role in "Thérèse," a woman fumbling to free herself from an unfulfilled marriage. It's a welcome but not entirely successful change of pace for the French star, who's best known for frothier fare.
The final film of Claude Miller, who died last year, is a handsome and quietly affecting — if at times frustrating — adaptation of Nobel laureate François Mauriac's 1927 novel "Thérèse Desqueyroux." (A 1962 version starred Emmanuelle Riva.) Mauriac was a tireless chronicler of the landed bourgeoisie of Bordeaux, and the movie's chief concerns are property and propriety, and their constraining effects on a woman with "too many ideas" for her provincial surroundings.
When the rarely smiling Thérèse is about to marry the simple, conventional Bernard (Gilles Lellouche, excellent), she acknowledges that the pine-filled acres to which they're each heir are a key element of the union. And yet it's not strictly an arrangement; however mismatched they are, there's a spark of feeling between them, one that will reignite, with profound understatement, years later. By then, having hoped in vain that marriage would provide a sense of order for her chaotic surfeit of thoughts, Thérèse has committed a shocking act.
Just as there's nothing sentimental about the central character, Miller's film is a work of emotional reserve, eschewing psychological explanation in favor of unadorned observation — of human behavior as well as nature and the still lifes of the domestic world. In Thérèse's lifelong friendship with Bernard's sister (Anaïs Demoustier), the movie touches on ways women betray one another, and themselves, to preserve custom.
Yet even given the character's extreme introspection and withdrawal, Tautou's performance is too often opaque; it's in Bernard's inept, earnest response to Thérèse that the film finds its pulse.
MPAA rating: None; French with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino