Exquisitely tasteful but suffocatingly dull, “Thérèse” casts everyone’s favorite French sprite, Audrey Tautou (“Amélie”), as a businesslike heiress in a repressive marriage.
It is not a brilliant coup of acting against type. Tautou’s natural charm is muffled in this opulent, heavy-spirited adaptation of François Mauriac’s melodramatic 1927 novel “Thérèse Desqueyroux.”
Tautou’s protagonist, raised to consider the family’s vast timber holdings before all else, marries her equally wealthy, stolid neighbor Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) largely to combine their fortunes. Only after the vows are exchanged does she realize how controlling Bernard and his austere family can be.
The entrapped Thérèse, whose habitual smoking is noted as a threat to the surrounding stands of pine trees, soon smolders and bursts aflame herself, pursuing a drastic path of escape from her stultifying, loveless marriage.
Increasingly bitter and at times despicable, Thérèse charts a course that threatens the happiness and the very lives of those around her. Yet those life-or-death passions don’t give the film an urgent pulse.
“Thérèse” was the final film of the late Claude Miller, who came of age with the iconoclasts of the French New Wave but preferred making tasteful, respectable films rather than thrilling, messy, challenging ones. Despite Miller’s revisionist, pseudo-happy ending to Mauriac’s tragic tale, the best that can be said for “Thérèse” is that it is handsomely mounted, in the sense of artfully executed taxidermy.