Thérèse (1986)

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As promised, I got and watched the 1986 production of Thérèse--a film in French celebrating the life of St. Thérèse, and by far and away a better film than the more recent production, although it does have several cinematic austerities. Interestingly enough, for this viewer the austerities work to the improvement of the overall feel of the film. There were no full "sets," only furniture against a constant backdrop of grey-brown. There was no music, only the ambient sounds of the actors and their movements. The entire motion of the film is a series of vignettes separated by dissolves or wipes, one moment not necessarily carrying clearly from the next. One of the difficulties of the film was keeping all of the women straight in my head. I often found myself wondering who was who as the action continued. While disorienting, it served also to emphasize the singularity of Thérèse herself.

Everything about the production was quiet, subdued, and intimate, inviting the viewer in to the intimate life of Thérèse herself. And of this intimate life, one got far more of an impression that with the other film of the same title. There is much more sense of Thérèse as a fully rounded person--Thérèse as impish, young, and terribly dedicated.

The Hairshirt and the Celice

There were some moments in which Thérèse had slightly the wrong emphasis, or a tweak in the wrong direction--not because what was depicted was incorrect but because it was not modified by what we now understand of Thérèse. Most notable among these is a scene in which Thérèse is preparing for the day. They show three different devices for mortification--a hairshirt, and two toothed or spike straps or belts--one for around the upper arm, one for around the upper leg. We see Thérèse putting these on and smiling her little smile. As noted, this is not an error--Thérèse was an obedient child of her time and observed the practices of the Carmelites at the time; however, Thérèse was one of the first to observe that these practices were utterly unnecessary. Indeed, part of the emphasis of the little way is that life itself brings mortification enough in the course of the day, one need seek out no more.

And this is well demonstrated by another scene in the film during which Thérèse falls asleep during the reading of scripture before the meal. Mother Superior tells her to go and lie on the floor before the refectory, and the nuns proceed to (mostly) step over her.

Je souffre. . . De mieux

One of the more dramatic moments in the film is a dialogue between Thérèse and one of her sisters. Thérèse is near the end of her life and talks about her suffering. She says Je souffre, and at first her sister responds Non.

Je souffre . . . Non
Je souffre . . . Non
Je souffre . . . Non
Je souffre . . . De mieux
Je souffre . . . De mieux
Je souffre . . . De mieux
Je souffre . . . De mieux
Je souffre . . . De mieux
Je souffre . . . De mieux
Je souffre . . . De mieux

So the dialogue goes getting faster and faster. The sister's later response is translated in the film as "good" but a better translation might be, "For the better."(Good is merely bien, something subtly different is being said here. Not that suffering is good, but that it is for the better). But the real point is that I had failed to notice up until this moment how similar the French Je souffre and Jésus are. Toward the end of this interchange it sounds as though Thérèse is speaking the name of Jesus over and over again. This is notable as nearly the only time in the film where the name is spoken, Jesus is referred to under a number of different names, but rarely spoken of by name.

Thérèse et Thérèse

This 1986 film gives a much more realistic, much grimmer look into the last sufferings of Thérèse, and it does not candy-coat the dark night. In addition, it feature one of the most revolting episodes committed to film, and reinforces my allergy to the notion of self-administered mortifications--it strikes me the that are often a perverse form of pride--taking upon ourselves what is more properly the realm of God. However, this beautiful little film does portray a Thérèse who is at once girl and Thérèse--who accepts the everyday realities of life even as she struggles to grow closer to Jesus.

Overall, a much more satisfying and fulfilling treatment of similar subject matter. Be forewarned that there is much more here that is more difficult to take that in the more recent production of Thérèse. And as a result, the film emerges as a truer, more intimate portrait of Thérèse. (Also, it doesn't hurt that it is in French, so some of the more saccharine things said, don't sound nearly so bad nor so French school-girly.

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Yes. In some ways, it's much easier to offer God some sacrifice that we can control ahead of time rather than saying yes to what God offers.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 16, 2006 8:41 AM.

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