Claude Miller died soon after completing this his 15th feature film. It was a distinguished career which included a period when he was production manager for first Jean-Luc Godard and then, for some time, François Truffaut. (See this obituary for more background.) Two films from him as writer-director that I remember enjoying are Un secret (2007) and Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). The first of these drew on Miller’s own background, born into a non-religious Jewish family, and the second was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with Sandrine Kiberlaine as the central female character under pressure. Both the anti-semitism of French society in the twentieth century and the pressure on a young woman feature in Thérèse Desqueyroux, an adaptation of a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, previously adapted for a film by Georges Franju in 1962. Mauriac is a canonical figure in French literature and won the Nobel prize in 1952. His granddaughter Anne Wiazemsky was an actor in the 1960s and 1970s and later a novelist. She married Jean-Luc Godard and appeared in several of his films.
I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier adaptation (in which Emanuelle Riva takes the central role) so I’m not able to make comparisons, but I would certainly be interested in seeing the Franju film. The lead in Miller’s film is taken by Audrey Tautou and that was one of the attractions for me. It was interesting to see Ms Tautou in a role that challenges audience assumptions about her star persona (cf her role in Delicacy (2011). The story is set in a very distinctive location – the Landes pine forests of Aquitaine, south-west of Bordeaux – in the 1920s. Thérèse is introduced as a teenager playing idyllic games with her friend Anne. Both girls come from local families which own large acreages of the forest, making a good income from wood and resin collection. But whereas Thérèse is the daughter of a radical and thinks for herself, Anne is more conventional – though her obvious enjoyment of hunting might be read in different ways. The surprise is that six or seven years later Thérèse agrees to marry Anne’s brother Bernard – like his sister highly conventional in his attitudes towards love, marriage, family and status. The mystery is why Thérèse allows herself to fall into this trap and her first test is how she will respond when her sister-in-law has a romantic affair with the handsome son of another local family. Bernard decrees that the affair is unsuitable and that the family’s good name is being besmirched. The young man clearly has Jewish blood – Thérèse refers to his family as ‘Portuguese’.
The National Media Museum programme guide described the film as a costume melodrama which led to certain expectations and I want to explore what ‘melodrama’ might mean in these circumstances. Thérèse as the central character is certainly a potential melodrama figure – in particular as the woman ‘in peril’ in the suffocating embrace of Bernard’s family. I think that there is a case for relating this to the ‘woman’s film’ scenario. On the other hand, there is no female best friend to confide in (the relationship with Anne changes) or much of a possibility of a ‘positive’ romance to pursue. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for scenes of ‘suffering’ as an intelligent and curious woman is expected to ‘behave responsibly’. Melodramas are usually concerned with emotions that are repressed or suppressed – and which then ‘return’ or are ‘released’ through an excess of music, colour, cinematography, mise en scène etc. In this case, there is a certain austerity about the mise en scène and the music, although often there, seemed unobtrusive (mostly classical piano pieces) to me. However, the dark house in the forest is clearly Gothic and when Thérèse meets Anne’s lover it is, of course, by the sea. The internal/external world is also represented through a series of sequences which might represent Thérèse’s thoughts, dreams or nightmares.
I won’t spoil the narrative but I will reveal that the resolution is not perhaps what we might expect after Therese is driven to fairly desperate measures and if you have seen the marvellous earlier film with Audrey Tautou, À la folie . . . pas du tout (2002), you might see a resemblance in the final shots of the two films. The hint of Hitchcock is also shared by the two films. I suppose I’m suggesting here that there is an element of film noir in this melodrama. I was intrigued to discover that Claude Miller decided not to follow the flashback structure of the book but instead to tell the story in a linear narrative – which actually makes the story more mysterious (and alters the portrayal of the husband).
When I came out of the film I wasn’t sure if I had ‘enjoyed’ it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a form of melodrama and that Claude Miller demonstrated great skill in his last film. All the performances are good and Ms Tautou has successfully extended her range. As Bernard, Gilles Lelouche also acts against his established character type (he usually plays comedic roles) and he also succeeds. I’m not sure that the film got the promotional push it needed on its UK release so you might struggle to find it but during a summer of tedious blockbusters this is an intelligent gem and I hope that I’ve intrigued you enough to want to see it.
The film’s Press Book is here (in French and in English).
Here is the Australian trailer (it reveals something about the plot that I have largely concealed):
I enjoyed this film very much. What struck me most forcefully was how Audrey Tautou has become even more beautiful as she has aged. In the first part of the film I was worried that she was being asked to again play the part of the gamine – which I know turns many audiences off – but in later scenes she is allowed to play closer to her real age and with her hair down I find her stunningly attractive. And can anyone wear pencil skirts and glide down a corridor in heels like Audrey? Ms Tautou reminds me of the stars of the studio period. She plays close to her star persona in each role. If you don’t find that persona appealing, you’ll probably have problems with her performances as a whole.
Delicacy is supposedly a rom-com but it bears little resemblance to Hollywood romcoms. I’d describe it as more like a romantic comedy drama. Audrey is Natalie, who in the first brief section of the film is married to her dreamboat, but then quickly widowed. The narrative proper then deals with her attempt to ‘live again’ which is accomplished with the sweet Markus (nicely played by François Damiens), the bumbling but charming Swedish worker who becomes part of her office team.
Delicacy is the first feature from the brothers David and Stéphane Foenkinos. Stéphane has experience mainly as an actor and as a casting director. David has joined his brother on just a couple of projects, but his was the novel on which this screenplay is based. The novel has been extremely popular in France and in her (recommended) Sight and Sound review (May 2012), Catherine Wheatley tells us that the screenplay was written more or less with Audrey Tautou in mind and its overall tone and feel draws strongly from that sense of the quirky, the mischievous and sometimes the possibility of darkness that Audrey embodies. (I’m reminded of that minor masterpiece À la folie . . . pas du tout – He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, 2002.)
The problem for many Hollywood romcoms is that they swing between blandness and sweetness – or they react against this and deal in cruelty or crudity. Subtlety and lightness are hard to sustain. I think Delicacy manages to combine some contradictory qualities very well and that’s what makes it satisfying. Because this is a first-time effort for the brothers Foenkinos they arguably try out a range of narrative devices and some work better than others but I think that freshness and originality is to be applauded. The main issue with the film seems to be with Markus and the assumption – by other characters in the narrative and by some audiences – that he can’t be attractive. He’s balding, slightly podgy and tends to wear sweaters to work. He’s also Swedish and self-deprecating (there are some good jokes about Swedishness). None of this rules him out as a warm-blooded human being that Natalie can respond to.
As one of my friends put it, Delicacy offers a pleasant and engaging evening’s entertainment. We enjoyed it as part of our escape from the jubilee nonsense in the UK and it worked a treat.