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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Flesh or Famine: Don Wallace film review of Renoir and Therese Desqueyroux

Flesh or Famine
Renoir is a feast, Tatou as Therese a cleanse

Like the tasting menu of a fine restaurant, there are a lot of subtle pairings at the Doris Duke’s annual Francophile festival this week, including Francois Truffaut’s 1962 Jules and Jim and Ilmar Raag’s 2012 A Lady in Paris. Both feature the great Jeanne Moreau, one at the very beginning and the other near the close of an iconic career, and if you pick your screenings right (hint: May 12 and 15) you can even see them back to back. (For complete listings and showtimes of all films, visit [])

Another spicy pairing is of the headliner, Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir, which moves to the Kahala 8 May 10 (and features, as you might expect, the heroic painter of fleshy, naked, pink ladies), and the closing-night entrée, Renoir’s son Jean’s rousing French Can-Can, the one with all the high-kicking chorines of the Moulin Rouge. Both films go down well with a glass of champagne, which the Doris Duke offers, but not the Kahala 8.

But Renoir actually makes an equally complementary match with a chillier, rigorously unsentimental version of Francois Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux, a study of a depressive would-be 1920s murderess. Yessir, these are two movies that couldn’t be more different in sensibility and subject. Yet both begin with the most familiar, and comforting, image in French cinema: a girl on a bicycle on a country road.

What’s to become of the girl? That’s the question, isn’t it? And it gets us every time.

In the case of Thérèse, she’s the daughter of a rich owner of a forest in the southwest of France, a region of flat, sandy pine barrens. At age twelve she hears of her fate: to be married to Bernard, the older brother of her best friend. His family owns the adjacent forest. It’s a joining of estates and Thérèse goes along with it, mostly to quiet the “disordered voices” in her head. In another age, the local doctor might’ve given her a Paxil, or she could’ve scored some Ecstasy at the rave. Instead, she grows strange and distant. Even after a baby arrives, she shows little interest in anything except the bottle of arsenic.

Like Thérèse, the movie refuses to engage. It spurns storytelling conventions; there’s tension, sure, but it comes from the conflict between rigid society and the one woman who can’t or won’t conform. Only murder offers a way out of the psychic bind. What follows is Yeats’ “negative capability”–and a work of art as flat as any canvas in a frame.

Renoir is the complete opposite: The very old painter, hobbled and in pain, brushes tied to his hands, demands a diet of fresh young pink things: “Flesh!” he cries. “Skin!” Set in the unspoiled SoCal-like beauty of the South of France during World War I, the film is a three-way between Renoir, his latest model, Andrée, a strawberry blonde (the luminous Christa Theret) restless to climb above her station, and Jean Renoir, only 21, wounded in the war and home to rehabilitate. Andrée inspires père Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and rehabs Jean (Vincent Rottiers) with her personality as well as her body. She gets Jean to thinking of what he might become other than the second son (he already is fascinated by primitive moving filmstrips and buys odd reels of movies from the traveling junkman).

With Andrée as his muse and lead actress, in real life Jean went on to make such classics as Grand Illusion, French Can-Can and The River. Then, just as his father did with his models, he discarded her when she went the way of all flesh.

In the end, both Andrée and Thérèse yearn to break out of a patriarchy. Which one succeeds I’ll leave for you to decide.

from the Honolulu Weekly:


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