‘Thérèse’ Explores Twentieth Century Marriage Convictions and the Sexual Paths Of Two Women

Thérèse film poster.

Written by Janyce Denise Glasper

The 2012 film Thérèse touches on the aftereffects of burgeoning sexuality between two women–Thérèse and her sister-in-law, Anne–and focuses on a companionship that was formed when they were young girls.
“Have you thought about it?” Anne asks. 
“You mean sleeping with your brother every night?” Thérèse asks back. 
“Yes? Doesn’t it scare you?”
“No, I never think about it.”
“You’re lying!”
“No, I swear. Never.” 
In this particular scene, the night before the big wedding between two adjoining pinery owners, Anne speaks of sexual intercourse with the vivid curiosity of a lively young woman. Her widened bright eyes and excited mouth speak candidly about scandalous romantic stories and masturbation–the latter a taboo topic among women of twentieth century France. Thérèse sees it nothing more than another trivial duty, another part of a rich union. Cigarette smoking, free thinking Thérèse appears bored with the overall thought, expressing little emotion, little joy. In terms of love, Thérèse affectionately nicknames Anne her “little girlfriend” and the soft, intimately close soon-to-be sisters clasp hands and sleep together–a picture of a long-time bond.
It was always three’s company between Thérèse (Audrey Tautou, center) and the Desqueyroux siblings, Anne (Anaïs Demoustier, right) and Bernard (Gilles Lellouche).
After the quiet wedding, the marriage bed occurs and Thérèse does not relish the occurrence or find satisfaction. When Bernard is lying atop of her still body, he grunts loud and moves awkwardly, selfish in his lovemaking skills. He is all about himself. No affection. No lingering touches that instill ardor. Cold, stoic Thérèse floats inside of an impermeable bubble, mouth closed, blank opened black eyes voided, arms lying limply on his back. She is as rigid as society conviction. Sex is a tedious obligation, not a pleasure.
This disheartening emotional prison that Thérèse is sequestered inside isn’t the kind that’s listed on the New York Times Bestseller List by historical romance novel writers who pen independent women seeking pleasure by graciously giving lovers. Thérèse’s privileged life has become the source of grave unhappiness, of silent depression. Her marriage isn’t a quintessential novel. It’s mundane and slowly killing her, especially with Bernard caring far more for the baby growing inside than Thérèse.
Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) enjoying one of Anne’s letters.
However, Anne’s sensually fluffed letters stimulate Thérèse’s duress. Anne has fallen in love with a roguish man named Jean that incites her vivacious spirit and electrifies naïve frustrations brewing between girlhood and fantasy. Her luscious words bring fruitful splendor to Thérèse, a vicarious longing that also inadvertently fuels Thérèse’s great jealousy. In Bernard, she feels no spark, no fire. In such a strict upper crust rule where women must obey husbands and yield to their every command, Thérèse has ultimately denied wanting those kinds of desires, growing up motherless and shadowing her father’s character, bearing perfect picture of the sophisticated society wife. Anne overtly shares captivating joy of having a man titillate ripening womanhood and this wicked experience is unknown to Thérèse, who greedily reads these letters in private vein, visibly shaken by the depth of Anne’s growing fulfillment.
Thérèse takes part in Anne’s family double crossed meddling, vowing to keep Anne away from her aching desire to marry a Jew. It’s unbearable seeing Anne break and shatter, like fragmented glass breaking in these tormented scenes. She is a pitiable wreck, refusing to eat, her disposition waning to a waxen pallor of imminent heartbreak. When Bernard’s dogs viciously attack her and he does the same straight after, the scene showcases a terrifying parallel between certain men and ferocious animals. Bernard may be gentle at times, but he has a violent side as beastly as a dog’s bite and treats his sister with cruel disdain. And as it turns out, Anne’s beau is too good to be true as well. Jean turns out to be a ruthless cad, a real asshole. This surprises Thérèse. He tells Thérèse in boastful fashion that he never has had an intention of marrying Anne or acquiring the deep tender feelings foolish Anne had so generously penned:
“Anne certainly has shared her life’s passions with me. You know what I’m talking about… the life that awaits her. The life that awaits all women around here. A bleak, provincial life. Proper, conventional, and rigid.” 
Should Anne’s desires have remained dormant? Untapped? Are we to bow down to Jean and thank him, though prior he also asks, “Is it forbidden to play for a bit?”
My need to punch Jean became stronger as he continued talking. It didn’t matter what books he read or how intelligent he appeared to Thérèse, who eventually secretly writes to him throughout the film. The fact remains that he intentionally took advantage of Anne’s innocence, sullied her world, and played her like a damned toy. It begins to become hard to choose a side. Do viewers side with Anne’s family who bar and treat her like an asylum patient? Yes, they have valid reasons. Yet it’s sickening how women are not allowed to have the same sexual freedom as men and that if they showcase signs of this, they are relegated to being treated like they have mental incapacity. Sexual feelings and thoughts are wrong. They must be shut out. Even today, women who showcase sexual liberation are labeled horrifically. The other presented question is do we congratulate Jean who stirred a passion that burned so brightly inside Anne? Do we say, hurray to the man who made Anne his intended victim–his target for foreplay? Either way the choices are unfair to Anne. They are for Thérèse, too. They both have to conform to tradition- ignore natural bodily desires and submit to marriage, to a man of family choosing.
Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) often is lost in thought and women in her time were not allowed to think.
The second shown sex scene between Thérèse and Bernard is a disturbing, grossly violent act, occurring some time after the birth of the couple’s daughter. It shows Bernard being further self-seeking and rough. Thérèse has swatted her hand, but he is forceful and initiates a randy monstrous shallowness. She looks perplexed by this turn of events. Now Thérèse does have a friendship with him, a certain kindhearted camaraderie. In certain scenes he is more like a brother than a husband. Yet in this one horrid night, Bernard demonstrates his power and Thérèse has no choice but to succumb to him and her growing downfall to ruin by trying to kill him.
Anne’s fate is adjacent to Thérèse’s. After being mentally and physically imprisoned by her family, Anne’s awakened passions are replaced by civil, respectable duty. Completely subdued and complacent, Anne prepares to marry a kind, dull gentleman that family prefers. The life which has scarred Thérèse  will be Anne’s. She has lost whimsical magic and charm. Her eyes are no longer merry and twinkling. Her smiles have lessened. She and Thérèse have both become muted in the course of the film.
Thérèse’s final scene with Anne is a sad one as well. It is apparent that they’ll probably never cross paths again. No more holding hands and sharing secrets. The past of two carefree girls has passed. They are fragmented shells that have dealt with family rejection, male dominance, and having sexual beliefs turned eschew. One cannot help but mourn the loss of their spirited personalities.
 Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) and Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) in happier times. 
Bernard does give Thérèse the keys to her freedom. He aches as he sees her literally dying before his eyes. Thérèse has lost so much, including rights to see her own child, but by the end, she gains something unexpected.
She has liberty.
Unfortunately, not many women can say the same.