The first images are captured from below the murky surface of the Seine, seemingly from the point-of-view of the poor sap who gets drowned by the dunderheaded lover of the film’s unlucky anti-heroine. It makes you wonder whether this workmanlike, mostly faithful revisit of Émile Zola’s brilliantly dreary early novel—the prototype for James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and countless films noir—might have turned out more interestingly had it opted to tell the whole movie explicitly from the perspective of the victim, who following his demise will re-enter the narrative as a ghost. It certainly would have helped give Thérèse some much-needed sense of purpose.
Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen) was raised by her aunt (Jessica Lange), who was pushing incest from the get-go by forcing Thérèse to bunk with cousin Camille (Tom Felton), whose oily hair, permanent sickliness and dearth of libido, wit or charm would hardly have snared the sort of indentured help-meet the family desired. When the threesome moves from the countryside to open a haberdashery in Paris’ darkest, dingiest backstreet, Thérèse finds fleeting relief from marital misery in the arms of Laurent (Oscar Isaac), a handsome, opportunistic oaf reckless enough to give Thérèse cunnilingus under the shelter of her skirts while Auntie gives her a neck-rub. Eventually the notion is raised that everyone concerned might be better off were Camille dead, and the rest is irresistible impulse, crippling guilt and bumbling police work, accented with studious production design, an amusing supporting turn from Shirley Henderson, pleasing bits of gallows humour, some intermittent suspense, and very little nuance or fresh insight.
Elizabeth Olsen, Thérèse, TIFF 2013