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Marcel Carné's 1953 adaptation of the famous Émile Zola novel came up against a divided critical reception. Besides updating the story, Carné and his screenwriter Charles Spaak radically altered the plotline. The result is a well-acted but overly familiar murder triangle more in keeping with serie noire crime thrillers than classic fiction.
This version of Thérèse Raquin is set in the gray mercantile shops of Lyon, among drab people living trivial lives. As personified by Simone Signoret, Thérèse is less a fiery anti-heroine than a sad woman living a muted life, who falls unknowingly into fatal intrigues. Alternately ignored and insulted by her mama's boy husband and his domineering mother, Thérèse knows that her marriage was arranged for the convenience of others. She hasn't any intention of doing anything about this grim arrangement until the manly and irresistable Laurent comes into her life. When he challenges her to leave with him, she counters with moral arguments. He asks her to just once think about her own happiness, and she asks questions about what good can come from such selfishness.
But Thérèse is not so altruistic as to be able to avoid a steamy romance with Laurent. She invents false dental appointments to meet Laurent in dance halls. She's content to steal these bits of happiness and leave it at that, but Laurent puts events into violent motion by telling her husband Camille. Whining and pleading, Camille forces Thérèse to go with him on a Paris holiday before she leaves. Unable to make a clean break, Thérèse agrees, but when Laurent finds out he boards the train as well. Nobody plans to commit a murder but it turns out to be unavoidable.
This is the point where Carné and Zola diverge. In the original deterministic plotline, the lovers' initial freedom slowly gives way to a nightmare of guilt and mutual recriminations. Zola eventually introduces grotesque details like corpses rotting in a morgue, and a domestic trap more stifling than the one Thérèse had hoped to escape. This movie update reatins only a hint of that angle, opting instead for a more generic blackmail scheme by a partial witness to the crime. Thérèse and Laurent are never in the clear. They're resigned and cool about their crime until this third party comes along, and from then on their fate is entirely in the blackmailer's hands. A story about guilt eating the soul is reduced to a macabre thriller with a twist ending.
Not to spoil the plot, but the twist ending seems borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion ... not the ending of the Cary Grant/Joan Fontaine film, but the ending Hitchcock was unable to use. It also smacks of a quickie plot resolution lampooned by the satirist Michael O'Donohue: When in doubt, have someone run afoul of a large, out-of-control motor vehicle. The mortal sickness of guilt never really gets under the skin of the inadvertent murderers, even though Carné and Spaak retain superficial Zola details, such as a hunchbacked girl Thérèse hires to keep the shop open. The killers remain gray middle-class people instead of transforming into the book's deranged fiends.
Although the film had its champions (director Carné was at the time reportedly being recognized as an overlooked talent) reviewers also took Thérèse Raquin to task by calling it a Neorealist version of what they would have preferred to be straight French guignol.The film plays as a perfectly fine domestic murder thriller in a pleasing setting. It won the Silver Lion at the Venice film festival, however.
Marcel Carné's production is pleasing to look at, with the hazy streets of Lyon a time-machine of a world probably completely gone now, fifty years later. Some night scenes of a view from a hill appear to be clever stage constructions using forced-perspective miniatures reminiscent somewhat of the director's epic period film Children of Paradise.
It's always good to see the young Simone Signoret perform; all she need do to gain our emotional interest is stand with a neutral expression on her face. Raf Vallone's intelligent truck driver is a somewhat idealized yet credible characterization; we can see how a shut-in like Thérèse would immediately be drawn to him. Sylvie and Jacques Duby are loathsome as the horrible mother and the pea-brained Camille; the movie makes it too easy for us to wish them both dead. The nefarious blackmailer is identified nowhere by name, so Savant wasn't able to connect him with the cast list. The good actor looks a lot like a French Robert Mitchum (he's the sideways face in the cover illustration, above). None of the top billed players is anywhere near the right age to fit the bill. Savant's best guess is a 30 year-old actor in the cast list by the name of Alain Terrane.
In a noted bit is Maria-Pia Casilio, memorable as the chambermaid in Umberto D. Her role here is too brief to have the same impact.
Kino's DVD of Thérèse Raquin is a very good transfer of an almost flawless original source, with good audio and carefully written removable subtitles. The only extras are a modest photo gallery and a Marcel Carné filmography.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Thérèse Raquin rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: stills gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 12, 2005