Monday, October 28, 2013

Marcel Carné | Thérèse Raquin

in a tomb
by Douglas Messerli

Marcel Carné and Charles Spaak (writers, based on the novel by Emile Zola), Marcel Carné (director) Thérèse Raquin / 1953

Generally when the great French director Marcel Carné’s film Thérèse Raquin is written about—and oddly little has been written about this film, none of my three major film guides (Halliwell’s, Maltins’s and the Time Out guides) even bothering to mention it—it is described as an example of Carné’s transformation from one of the greatest of French film auteurs to an almost second-rate hack; some described it as melodramatic, while critics simply suggest his style of film-making was outdated, particularly with the rise of the French New Wave.

      Certainly this film from 1953 cannot compare with the audacious energy of a film of a decade later such as Breathless, but it certainly outshines numerous Hollywood romances of the same period, and, although it does not have the freshness of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy of a year later, it offers an important link between Carné’s moody fatalist romances of the 1930s and 1940s and the almost cynical film noirs of the late 1940s and 1950s. Whereas Zola clearly set his figures against a naturalist background where societal conditions determined the fate of his figures, Carné explores the psychological natures of his characters, which doom them far more than the class-structures in which they live and by which their lives have been informed.

     Clearly Thérèse (Simone Signoret), given a place to live by her menacing aunt and then forced at an early age to marry her sickly mamma’s boy cousin, Celine (Jacques Duby), has been conditioned to accept life in the most meager of terms, but she well comprehends her own unhappiness and the reasons for it. If she finds it difficult to make a change, it is not so much because of her social inferiority and prior poverty, but her psychological desire to please and her own bourgeois values. Laurent (Raf Vallone), the truck-driver she accidently meets through her husband’s drunkenness (occasioned by Laurent’s attempt to transform the nasty bureaucrat into a useful friend), is, from the moment they meet, ready to run away with her, returning to his native Italy if necessary. But the obedient and self-sacrificing Thérèse, although equally attracted to Laurent, simply cannot give herself up to the moment. She becomes an “adulteress”—the ridiculous word applied to the English version of the film—only because of her smoldering resentment and her disgust of her present life, and her seeming acceptance of Laurent’s love is a slow process that in opposition to his heated animal passions.

      In short, it is their very psychological oppositions that draw them to each other. While Laurent acts impulsively, Thérèse painfully weighs every one of her acts. That she ultimately still agrees to escape with Laurent comes only after the realization that her husband, who has discovered her sexual transgressions, becomes determined to punish her for her behavior. Although she does not apparently know of his plans to lock her up in a relative’s home in Paris, she does perceive that the three days he has begged her to join him in Paris will be only the beginning of increasing demands, as he threatens suicide and other forms of his own death.

     The world in which Thérèse is locked away, in her aunt’s haberdashery shop in the Old Town of Lyons, is almost like tomb in which instead of living life the inhabitants spend their life playing games. The very first scene of the film, in fact, shows Celine and his mother entranced by old men playing a game of bocci, while the disinterested young girl stares at the Rhône river as it flows away from the city. When Laurent is invited by Celine to the house, it is only to join his mother and elderly friends playing a horse-racing board game. If Laurent is interested in a game, it is the play of life in action, and it is fitting that he joins Thérèse upon the train that might seem to be taking away from the closed world of Lyons—although we know it is only a voyage to a world even more enclosed! That Celine and Thérèse have chosen a cabin with a sleeping sailor only adds to the levels of irony, as the inveterate traveler now seems dead to the world.

     At the very moment that it becomes apparent to Thérèse and audience both that she is quite literally choking in the embracement of her sickly and spiritually dead husband, Laurent, in a fit of rage, strangles Celine, throwing him off the train. We hardly are startled by the act; Celine is so clearly an unfit traveler, a man that should never have left his bed.

     But at that very same moment, as the dark pessimism of Carné’s earlier films joins with the cynical pessimism of the post-World War II world, we also comprehend that the relationship between the lovers is doomed, and, that perhaps Thérèse has seen Laurent less as an ideal lover than as a “way out.” Ironically, she must now return to her “tomb,” to her hated aunt’s side as she pretends—now herself “playing” a kind of game—to know nothing about her husband’s death.

      That the couple almost get away with it—when the sailor lies to police and Thérèse’s aunt, who also knew of Thérèse’s sexual transgressions, suffers paralysis upon hearing of son’s death—does not so much offer salvation as it points up the moral conundrums of the period, demonstrating the loss of faith in any social structures that so many suffered during those years, which was already foretold in Carné’s romantic dramas of the previous decade. And though Thérèse is societally “forgiven” the errors of her ways, even after awarded a small monetary sum in recompense, the writer and director, as in many—as in many film noirs—allows them no way out. The symbol of freedom (travel and adventure) that Thérèse so seeks rises up to swallow its own tail, as the sleeping sailor returns to blackmail the couple, determined to get enough money so that he too might join the bourgeoisie, running a bicycle shop!

      Thérèse and Laurent can only give in to the blackmail attempt if they want to survive, but the gods themselves have other plans, as at the very moment they pay him, the sailor is killed by a run-away truck (the tool of Laurent’s own career). We know what they cannot: the sailor has sent a letter to the police, telling them all, destined to be mailed if he does not arrive home at certain hour. In his absence, the young girl to whom he has entrusted the letter goes skipping of to the mail box!

     Yes, the plot creaks. Carné believed always more in the theater than in the audience watching it; but his film, even in its darkest shadows, shines in its allegorical representations of the age-old battle between desire and death. Even if the heaving breasts of Signoret and the bulging pectorals of Raf Vallone suggest a melodramatic approach to life, I’ll take it over the giggling, game-playing adult-adolescents of Doris Day and Rock Hudson of a few years later any day.

Los Angeles, October 28, 2013

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