TIFF 2013: ‘Therese’ a dead-on-arrival debut


Theresetherese poster

Written and directed by Charlie Stratton

USA, 2013

So-called “costume dramas” often deal in subtle yet significant helpings of sexual repression guiding their characters’ every action. The idea of an erotic thriller set in the 1860s is thereby rather an intriguing one – in which each intimate moment carries greater weight and excitement than in most present day scenarios. Émile Zola’s novel “Thérèse Raquin” is no stranger to cinema, its first of many screen adaptations dating back to a 1915 Italian silent film. Television veteran Charlie Stratton makes his feature directorial debut with a new look at the doomed yarn of lust and betrayal.

Stratton has paved his way through directorial gigs on Faux Baby and, most recently, Revenge. His move to feature filmmaking brings with it the sensibilities of one senselessly scrambling to keep cable subscribers tuned in for commercial breaks – rushing story angles and building to mild climaxes so we’ll wonder what comes after the car insurance ads. Stratton’s own inorganic script weeds out all but plot points and selling points, leaving only paper-thin characters with auto-pilot trajectories and very little if anything of note going toward presenting them in aesthetically fetching fashion. To be sure, Therese is a film in which “stuff just happens”.

What ensues as the remnants of our characters randomly betray and manipulate one another, blurring lines between protagonists and antagonists with negligible care for narrative effectiveness, plays as more a comic caper than anything. Presumably intentional though questionably placed comic relief bottoms out the already frail proceedings, feeling downright silly. In particular, Jessica Lange’s consistently over-the-top showing calls forth Betsy Palmer’s crazed Pamela Voorhees before a certain impairment renders a would-be heartbreaking affliction goofy through cartoonish facial expressions.

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To grasp at straws, at least this attempt at a thriller is erotic, yes? Can we chalk this up as an Original Sin junior, or perhaps 9½ Weeks with corsets? Sure, there are plenty of brief sex scenes between two smoldering performers, yet unlike most other films of this kind these characters are hardly repressed, nor prudes coming to blossom, for that matter. We do not long for them to be together since they are never shown to be kept apart. The cavorting almost instantaneously becomes routine, and eventually tiresome. Furthermore, with characterization gravely lacking, the attempted eroticism of such scenes is barely stimulating on any level. It certainly isn’t carnally so – bringing question to a single quick and insignificant shot that would call for an ‘R’ rating – but more importantly there is also very little to glean intellectually from the incessant humping and fingering and cunnilingus.

It is a sorry sight to behold deservedly rising stars Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac putting forth more than competent performances within the otherwise creative void that is the new Roadside Attractions acquisition Therese. Even Tom Felton – known for playing slimier types – excels in a more innocent, child-like role doomed to the film’s dull confines. In the world premiere’s suitably limp post-show Q&A, Olsen observed the film as “painful to watch.” She was assuredly referring to the idea of performing multiple orgasms on a large screen to a crowd of thousands, however she could just as easily have been referring to the entire film in general.

– Tom Stoup

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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