Thérèse (1986)

Director: Alain Cavalier


By Marilyn Ferdinand

All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent? (Salieri from Amadeus)

Thérèse had consciously aspired to the heights, often saying to herself that God would not fill her with a desire that was unattainable. Only 26 years after her death she was beatified by Pope Pius XI, and in the year of Jubilee, 1925, he pronounced her a saint. (from Lives of Saints)

Two real people—Antonio Salieri and Thérèse Martin, aka St. Thérèse of Lisieux—shown in creative imaginings of their lives and significance. The former, in Amadeus, was certainly created virtually out of whole cloth. In Thérèse, director Alain Cavalier meticulously researched the record, then only about 100 years old, including photographs and Thérèse’s own best-selling journal Histoire d’une âme (Story of a Soul), and kept to the facts as they are known whenever possible.

What strikes me most about these two films is that they emphasize the passionate nature of religious longing. While Amadeus, told from Salieri’s bitter point of view, chooses to ridicule the man whose imagined passion was fulfilled by portraying Mozart as an undeserving vulgarian, Thérèse focuses on the object of divine grace, portraying the envy of others as an attraction touching on romantic love for the chosen one herself. In the same way, Thérèse’s life from the age of 14 is a profound love affair with Jesus Christ. During her battle to be admitted to the severe Carmel order, which ended successfully at age 15, she tells skeptics “He is courting me. What can I do?”

In the literature of organizations devoted to her, Thérèse of Lisieux is called “The Little Flower of Jesus.” Her self-described way of spreading god’s love was her “little way.” Indeed, the first scenes of the film show Thérèse (Catherine Mouchet) struggle to save the soul of a condemned murderer. We see the man on the way to execution reject the Church’s absolution. Later, Thérèse rejoices in reading to her older sister Céline (Aurore Prieto) a newspaper account that says the man rejected the priest at the guillotine, but kissed the crucifix the priest carried. “I’ve done it!” Thérèse exclaims. She has saved him through her prayers.

Thérèse has a happy home life with her sister and her father (Jean Pélégri). Louis Martin has already seen two of his daughters, Marie (Mona Heftre) and Pauline (Sylvie Habault), enter the Carmel. When Thérèse tells him therese1.jpgshe wants to join them, she thoughtfully asks how he felt about sending them away to a cloistered existence. Honestly, he tells her he was sad to lose their company, but proud of them nonetheless. In fact, Thérèse’s real parents aspired to religious life before they married. You might say the Martin sisters entered the family business, and Pere Martin helps Thérèse achieve her desire.

In the manner of a love-besotted teen, Thérèse pursues entry into the Carmel with single-minded persistence. When the Prioress (Clémence Massart) says she is too young to endure the rigors of life at the Carmel, she appeals to the bishop (Jean Pieuchot). When he turns her down, she goes to see the Pope (Armand Meppiel). Cautioned not to speak to the Pope directly, she defies the order and asks him to let her enter the convent. His reply, “Do what your superiors will tell you,” is not the answer she hoped for, but the barriers come down anyway.

therese%20hair%20edit.JPGOn her admittance as a novice, Thérèse is shown to be ecstatic to have her hair cut to fit under her wimple. She takes up her duties, including a vow of silence, with vigor and joy. There is a celebratory and sensuous air in the convent whenever she is around. Cavalier creates this atmosphere on a blank soundstage populated only with necessary props by emphasizing faces, human interactions, tactile activities. For example, the maneuvers the sisters must make to secure their veils and move in and out of their habits are sensuously recorded. The camera lingers on their clothing, their simple cloth shoes, and tasks that involve cloth. One scene shows Thérèse wringing the sheets she has washed, then smoothing them with purposeful caresses along a clothesline. These intimate acts seem to illustrate St. Thérèse’s little way, with perhaps a hint of a new bride attending lovingly to the domestic tasks she would do for a husband. Indeed, she looks like a proper bride when she is prepared to take final vows. And at Christmas, the nuns get drunk and take turns cradling a wood carving of their infant husband as though they were mothers in love with their new baby.

Thérèse coughs blood and is diagnosed, under the strenuous denials of the Prioress, as having tuberculosis. It seems that this level of suffering and probable early death are evidence to the Prioress that Thérèse really is a chosen vessel of god. The well-worn convention of envy again rears its ugly head as the Prioress lashes out, “I’m sick of the Martin sisters.” At the other end of religious movie convention is the fictional Sister Lucie (Hélène Alexandridis). Infatuated with Thérèse, she ingests some of Thérèse’s tubercular sputum and leaves the convent wearing the only street clothes she has—her wedding dress from her final vows and her plain canvas shoes, stuffed with coins. These moments mar an otherwise authentic telling of Thérèse’s story. The film also ignores the level of suffering the real Thérèse endured, her desire to become a priest, and her struggle with waning faith in her last couple of years.

therese2.jpgTherese%20edit.JPGBut no matter. The performance Catherine Mouchet gives is one for the ages. She is utterly convincing as an earthly girl with an unearthly love (not to mention she bears an uncanny resemblance to the real saint). Not much happens in this film, certainly nothing terribly dramatic, but it is impossible to turn away. We are wrapped in a heavenly cloud of love through Mouchet’s utter conviction, which stands in stark contrast to the ordinary Carmelite sisters who cling to their pre-cloister loves and lives with a wistful regret, “In Carmel, it’s the first 30 years which are the most difficult,” says one dying nun whom Thérèse attends. This fictional film helps us achieve an approximate experience of intense faith that the fine documentary Into Great Silence, which also focuses on the simple repetitions of the faithful and their quiet faces, cannot penetrate. Cavalier allows us a sympathetic understanding of a life that defies reason. l

  • Mike Bolognese spoke:
    9th/07/2012 to 8:52 am

    I was terribly taken by the film Therese when I first saw it. I have seen it as a bit odd in later viewings. I must see it again after reading your post.

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