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THERESE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Catherine Mouchet, Hélène Alexandridis, Aurore Prieto, Clemence Massart-Weit
Director: Alain Cavalier
Audio: French and English Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: anamorphic widescreen, 1.66:1, color
Studio: Wellspring Media
Features: filmography, trailers
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: February 4, 2003

"I will spend my Heaven in doing good on Earth.  I will let fall a shower of roses." - St. Thérèse

Film ****

Thérèse (1986) is a biographical film based upon the life of a young Carmelite nun.  Born Marie-Françoise Thérèse Martin in Alencon, France, she was the youngest of nine children.  The film chronicles her early efforts to join the sisterhood during the waning years of the nineteenth century and her subsequent cloistered life in the convent.  At the behest of her Mother Superior, Thérèse also kept a diary.  Her personal remembrances and musings, as recounted within its pages, were eventually assembled together into a book - Story of a Soul.  Published some time after Thérèse's death, Story of a Soul quickly became widely admired for its reflective passages and Thérèse's inspirational outlook even as the flame of her life slowly expired.  To this day, her writings retain immense universal appeal and serve as the basis for this unique film.

The real Thérèse was the last of five surviving sisters, her other siblings having died in childhood.  Consequently, her father was very protective of his daughters, withholding from them even the newspapers to shelter his daughters from the world.  They did, however, occasionally read the paper while he napped and return it before he awoke, an amusing anecdote which is reflected in the film.  As a child, Thérèse led an idyllic life and was a normal little girl, if somewhat prone to illness.  She was educated by Benedictine nuns in Lisieux, and, at age 11, had a revelatory experience when she was healed of a serious illness by Our Lady of the Smile.  This profound incident instilled in her a deep desire to enter a religious vocation.  By age 13, she expressed her wish to follow her sisters Marie and Pauline into the local Carmel, and after a special entreaty delivered all the way up to Pope Leo XIII, Thérèse entered the Carmel of Lisieux in 1888 at the young age of 15.  Ultimately, all five sisters joined the convent, four (including Thérèse) as Carmelite nuns, and the fifth as a Visitation sister.

Thérèse adopted the religious name of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.  She lived in relative obscurity and humility.  As a Carmelite nun, she nurtured a simple, childlike spirituality, her "little way," and accepted the varied trials of her life as a symbol of her love for the grace and will of her God.  She never lost her faith, even towards the final hours of her life.  Thérèse was eventually canonized in 1925, when she would have been 52 years of age.  In 1997, Pope John Paul II bestowed upon her the rare title of Doctor of the Catholic Church in acknowledgment of her contributions to spirituality and the tremendous, beneficial influence her words have had over countless people.

Thérèse, drawing from the autobiographical Story of a Soul, dramatizes many events from Thérèse's life.  The film has a bold yet restrained vision quite unlike most cinematic experiences that have preceded it or followed since.  Its placid and sometimes introspective passages are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light.  Furthermore, comparisons with Dreyer's immortal La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) are inevitable, though Thérèse shines quite admirably in this comparison.  Both films are sympathetic portrayals of French saints, featuring exceptional performances by lead actresses in their film debut.  Both films are, despite their religious nature, really celebrations of the human spirit.  Director Alain Cavalier, perhaps in tribute to Dreyer, also employs an extreme minimalist approach.  Many scenes are composed almost entirely of close-ups.  The story is told as much through facial expressions as through dialogue.  Thérèse is notably lacking in any sentimentality, big dramatic moments, or even action at all.  It is narrated simply and sincerely and is all the more touching for it.

In its premiere, Thérèse earned the very prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.  It also later won six César Awards, the French equivalence of the Oscars.  Among those awards were nods for best picture, best director, and most promising actress against some extremely good competition that year, including Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources!  However, Thérèse remains largely unknown outside of France, a reflection of the decidedly nonexistent commercial appeal of its religious tones and the film's highly unconventional mise-en-scène.

Thérèse's visual atmosphere is a surprisingly avant-garde and barren one.  While costumes are accurately portrayed, all of the film's locales and settings are suggested solely by the presence of a few furniture pieces on mostly empty sets.  There isn't even a backdrop, just a grayish wall or else fading shadows.  Though there is a deliberate staginess to the film's appearance, the warm lighting and the unusual set designs manage to truly convey a sense of realism and tranquility.  Many scenes have an eloquent grace to them - Thérèse's early visits to the Carmel from the outside world, her tender moments with her sisters, her final meeting with a local bishop while surrounded by veiled Carmelite nuns.  The effect of the unorthodox cinematography is a suggestion of timelessness that is in keeping with the old, austere traditions of the Carmelite order but also serves to focus our attentions entirely on the serene performances.

The film, for the most part, is reserved and motionless.  Cavalier's camera is mainly an invisible observer and refrains from any flashy angles or tracking.  Instead, motion is suggested by the rhythm of the editing.  While close-ups are allowed to linger lovingly upon the actresses' facial expressions, many scenes do not last more than a minute or two.  It is a paradox - a simultaneously brisk yet slowly-paced film.  Many scenes will benefit from some familiarity with the life of St. Thérèse and will therefore improve with subsequent re-viewings.  In the end, the montage of sparse but contemplative scenes create an overall quiet radiance to the film and allow the performances to truly shine.

Catherine Mouchet, as Thérèse, is outstanding in her debut.  She also has an uncanny resemblance to the real St. Thérèse, who was often remembered as the Little Flower of Jesus.  In fact, a floral motif is used repetitively throughout the film to portray Thérèse's good nature and her faith in her love.  Mouchet brings to her role a fresh, almost child-like naiveté that belies this unwavering spirituality even when her devotions were tested.  Her understated but strong characterization is the soul of the film.  The actress vanishes, leaving behind only Thérèse, and we believe in her completely.  Indeed, Mouchet is perhaps too good, for later in her career she would encounter difficulties with type-casting as a result of her memorable performance in Thérèse.

As a religious and biographical film, Thérèse certainly presents an unenviable challenge to any marketing campaign.  Yet while an understanding of Catholicism may yield greater appreciation for this film, one does not need to be Catholic to enjoy it (I'm not).  There is a purity of heart and sincerity in Thérèse that transcends its religious intimations and is sadly lacking in most films nowadays.  Like the autobiography upon which it is based, the film too has the ability to inspire people.  Thérèse, in its own simple but subtle way, allows us to believe in the inherent goodness of the human spirit.

Video ***

Thérèse is presented as a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer.  While the film is free of any glaring artifacts, the picture does have a small share of dust specks and occasional timing dots.  The picture quality is also pretty soft, particularly in some of the extremely rare long shots.  Colors look fairly natural, although the skin tone is a slight shade of orange at times.  Overall, Thérèse has a decent video quality which is adequate but not spectacular.

Audio **  

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, although it is probably the most sparse soundtrack I've heard for a sound film.  The subwoofer is completely silent.  There are no sound effects, no ambience backgrounds, no music, nothing.  Well, okay, there is a minute or two of chanting by a nun, but that's all.  The sound is otherwise comprised entirely of dialogue, which is fairly minimal, at that!  At least this dialogue is clean of noise and easily understood, if somewhat soft-spoken.  Overall, there is not much to rate here, but the audio, what there is of it, is quite satisfactory.

On a curious trivial note, Thérèse was also nominated for a César Award for best sound!

Features *

The shelves are pretty barren here, too.  Filmographies are included but are very abbreviated.  Better are the seven trailers for various French films.  Lastly, there is a listing of websites for those interested in learning more about St. Thérèse de Lisieux.

Summary:

Thérèse is a pure and austere film experience.  It quietly celebrates the enduring strength and joy that personal faith may provide.  This enlightening French film is certainly not for everyone, but those who do embrace Thérèse will find encouraging hope in its message of inner peace even in face of the saddest circumstances.