Therese

Early in the new French film Therese, the youthful title character takes a pin and pricks the tip of her finger. With her blood, she writes Jesus’s name on a crisp piece of paper.

This image of religious devotion occurs even before Therese has entered the strict Carmelite convent where she will spend the rest of her life. In this image we may see the film’s tendency to translate her soaring spiritual fervor into tactile, even bloody, life – a kind of transubstantiation on film.

This is the story of Therese of Lisieux, a saint who lived a simple life in the late 19th century and who left a widely read diary (perhaps she is beginning it in that early image) after her death at age 24. Anyone expecting a bioflick full of hoked-up reverence along the lines of Song of Bernadette is in for a surprise; Therese is at once arty and simple, stark and witty, and not quite like any film you’ve seen.

Director Alain Cavalier’s method is to present flashes of Therese’s life, in brief, intense tableaux, all photographed in front of the sort of neutral gray backdrop of a photography studio. This lends a weird, even convent-like intensity to each scene; like Therese’s love of God, there is nothing cluttering the clarity of the central purpose.

In Catherine Mouchet’s extraordinarily direct, open performance, Therese exists to love Jesus. She exudes her love for her “husband” (the nuns are considered married to Christ) with a fierce single-mindedness and a feverishness that borders on the pagan. But it is not the film’s purpose to expose the perversity of saintliness – it’s as far form Ken Russell’s mad The Devils as it is from Bernadette.

The starkness of the setting also emphasizes the darts of physicality and goofiness. This is an unexpectedly funny film; among all the holiness, two nuns can still chuckle while observing that, “We’re nuts for a guy who’s been dead 2,000 years.”

But the wit is not blasphemous; when the nuns drape their heads with their habits to shield their faces during a delivery man’s arrival from the outside world, Cavalier shoots it so that we appreciate both the absurdity and the dignity of the action.

Cavalier’s dead-calm approach allows Therese’s spirit to shine through, immensely aided by Mouchet’s performance (her first movie). At first, you think her giggly, dimpled presence is hardly the stuff of sainthood; actually, she resembles a Gallic Gidget. But then most saints probably started out looking more like fleshly human beings than the idealized, emaciated figures we see on holy cards, and that’s one of the things Therese seems bent on reminding us about.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

It opened at the Market Theatre in Seattle. Catherine Mouchet, whose name is disturbingly close to Bresson’s secular saint Mouchette, continued on to a steady career. Cavalier turns 90 next month.

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