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Precise Acting and Chain-smoking Belie Ambiguous Reasoning in Therese

The final feature from the recently passed French director Claude Miller (A Secret, Alias Betty) is a blandly handsome adaptation of François Mauriac's bitter 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux—previously filmed 50 years ago, with Amour's Emmanuelle Riva in the title role. Here, it's Audrey Tautou, sullenly shaking off her pixie-cute Amélie whimsy and climbing into the bell jar as a dispassionate Jazz Age aristocrat suffocated by her fiscally beneficial marriage to narrow-minded, provincial landowner Bernard (Gilles Lellouche), brother of her best friend, Anne (Anaïs Demoustier). Unenergetically paced and too tasteful by half, the film tries to get into the troubled yet enlightened headspace of pouty, chain-smoking Thérèse as she becomes liberated enough to poison her boorish husband with forged prescriptions of arsenic. But the lady remains a reticent cipher, whose ambiguous moodiness and other reactionary behavior (such as sabotaging Anne's relationship with a suitor—is this on behalf of her family's anti-Semitic disapproval, or her own quasi-Sapphic jealousy?) is rarely tied to clear-cut motivations. If the banality of life within the Bordeaux gentry is the point, then the ensuing oppressiveness is immaculately depicted through precise performances and camerawork—just don't call it emotionally engaging drama.

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