Don’t read it, watch it: Thérèse Raquin (MML)

SOPHIE WILLIAMS finds out whether the 1953 film version of your French set-text will help you pass your exams.

Books Cinema Film France French literature mml therese raquin

Set texts are compulsory demons.

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (1867) is one such beast. It’s the set-texts for first year French students for Paper Fr1: ‘Introduction to French literature, linguistics, film and thought.’

They sure don't make film posters like they used to

They sure don’t make film posters like they used to

As we all learnt from GCSE English, it’s usually better to watch the film of something rather than read it again before an exam.

While there is a new film adaptation of the novel coming up this year that is enigmatically titled In Secret – described as an ‘American erotic thriller film’ on Wikipedia – starring Elizabeth Olsen (the Olsen sister who isn’t a twin) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), perhaps the most famous film version of the novel, for now, is the one directed by Marcel Carné (director of the more-famous Children of Paradise) and released in France in 1953 under the plain ol’ title of Thérèse Raquin.

But if you’re planning to watch this film in order to avoid reading/re-reading the novel – don’t. Watch the film for its own sake, maybe; it’s rather good. But, unhappily for the title of this article, it is not the novel. At all. Well, maybe about 30% of the stuff that happens is from the novel. But there is, indeed, still a woman named Thérèse Raquin who has a sickly, shrimpy husband/cousin (yum) named Camille, a distinctly unsexy man that she cheats on with a sexy man named Laurent, who had been Camille’s friend. Things happen (affairs/murder etc.) that some of the characters feel bad about, to their ultimate misfortune. An old woman becomes paralysed. There is still a cat. That’s about all that’s the same. The murder is totally relocated and reframed; there are no ‘ghosts’ or hallucinations; Laurent isn’t French (he’s Italian); and, most startlingly, there’s a soldier with annoyingly-plucked eyebrows who comes in and completely changes the latter half of the story, neither for the better nor for the worse. It’s just very different.

Vallone and Signoret both looking like sexy oxen

Vallone and Signoret both looking like sexy cattle or something

So I’d advise you to not watch the film in lieu of reading the book – but if you ever receive an essay question about the reception or legacy of Zola’s realism (or something), referencing the film might be a good shout. Because what Carné does is make the not-very-realistic ‘realist’ novel more realistic – ghosts that might not even be ghosts? In a ‘realist’ novel? What were you smoking, Zola? – but it’s also more romantic, as you might expect from a black-and-white film from the 1950s. Think minor Hitchcock or Casablanca but with murder and affairs and stuff. But the romanticised Raquin works, partly thanks to fantastic lead performances from Simone Signoret and Raf Vallone as Thérèse and Laurent respectively who, despite having a slightly creepy resemblance what with their square faces, play the tortured lovers rather fantastically. It’s not the best film ever and certainly not the most loyal adaptation, but it’s still worth watching. In the meantime: get reading that Zola, mes amis.

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