"You never get worked up," Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) tells his wife, Thérèse (Audrey Tautou), halfway through this film that not only shares the woman's name but also her tempered disposition. Adapted from François Mauriac's novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, Claude Miller's swan song details the banality of the aristocratic lifestyle in 1920s France a bit too well. Even as it tells a story with plenty of potential for dramatic intrigue, the film remains mostly as dispassionate as its tightly wound characters, whose personalities are neatly summarized by Thérèse's father at one point: "Life isn't worth living," he says, "if you don't own land"—a line that offers about as drab a vision of the good life as one can imagine.
It's land that unites Bernard and Thérèse, whose marriage is mostly a means of combining their families' large, neighboring estates. Thérèse, though, doesn't immediately seem suitable for such a conformist life. "She thinks too much," Bernard's mother complains, and it's true that Thérèse, in her conversations with her childhood friend, Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), who's also Bernard's sister, seems at best a convert to the requirements of her new life and at worst one of those troublemaking, free-thinker types. "Marriage will save me from the disorder in my head," she tells Anne. "I choose peace." To which Anne replies, "Peace isn't interesting."
Thérèse soon learns just how uninteresting peace can be, and her plight—the constraining lifestyle of being a wife and a mother—echoes that of Anna Karenina's. But rather than run off, Thérèse chooses to turn cold; denied the freedom it craves, her soul slowly hollows out. In showing this trajectory, Thérèse powerfully details the loss of independence and willpower that social and familial demands force upon Thérèse, and Tautou's performance is precise and restrained in conveying her character's increasing physical frailty.
Yet too often the film exhibits the same lack of vitality as its protagonist. The story's second half largely concerns a betrayal within the Desqueyroux family that's ripe for tense drama, only the build-up is played too fast and the consequences of the ordeal are too quickly wrapped up. Passion briefly rears its head early in the film in the form of Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber), a young man whose boat with bright red sails gliding on the calm blue water is meant to signify his disruptive free spirit. He and Anne start up a brief affair, of which Anne's family disapproves, and the scenes that revolve around Jean are the film's most captivating because they ratchet up the story's emotional tenor. Unfortunately, his premature exit from the story leaves not only Thérèse but the film itself lacking in spirit and energy.