“A riddle for a heathen,” says Thérèse Martin (Catherine Mouchet) at one point in Thérèse, Alain Cavalier’s stark, austere reflection on the mystery of the little saint of Lisieux’s romance with Jesus.
Perhaps that is what Thérèse herself and her whole life is to Cavalier — a riddle for a heathen. His film is a reverie rather than a meditation, built of fleeting minimalist vignettes, almost snapshots, glimpses of its subject rather than an integral portrait. There is no sense of judgment, of approval or disapproval of its subject’s life, or even, finally, of real understanding. His Thérèse is a riddle, and we must make of her what we can.
As with a riddle, Cavalier strips away all that is not essential to the story. Sets and props have been reduced to an absolute minimum, and music is limited to snatches of onscreen hummed chant. In its restraint and minimalism the film evokes the spiritual cinema of Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest), who sought for God in the spaces he left in his films by leaving out other things. Cavalier may not be specifically looking for God, but he seems to be leaving room for him all the same.
If Thérèse is a riddle, the key, as she tells us herself, is love — not suffering, as her sister suggests. Suffering is important, but not the end in itself. When the curé of the Carmelite convent at Lisieux tells the 14-year-old Thérèse that she may not enter the convent in spite of her great desire to do so, which the Lord gives her "to test you, to strengthen your calling," Thérèse objects, "Why test me if I can’t bear it?" Suffering for love, Thérèse can understand; suffering over obstacles to love seems pointless to her.
Cavalier’s Thérèse is in many ways a typical teenager, vivacious, giggly, unaffected. Like all the Carmelites, she views her relationship with Jesus in terms of romantic love — but for her this love is as real and thrilling as human love to her secular peers. "I’m in love with Jesus — he’s courting me, what can I do?"
Even the other sisters seem not to experience Jesus’ love as deeply as Thérèse. When a sister in the convent sighs that no one notices their efforts, Thérèse’s immediate reply is, "He does." This, though, seems unreal to the other nun: "Oh, him. I’m not his type." But Thérèse disagrees: "He fancies you!" A romantic love, but one without jealousy — a long that longs to be shared with others.
In a psychological age, it’s impossible to watch this film without contemplating critic Andrew Sarris’s Freudian reading of the protagonist’s devotion as "displaced sexuality and transubstantiated fetishism."
In some scenes this possibility seems rather innocent and harmless, as when in a Christmas sequence the groom becomes a child and the virgin nuns cradle a wooden Christ child in their arms. At other times it takes on a more disturbing cast, as when dream imagery blends thoughts of joyous martyrdom with rape-fantasy imagery. And in at least one case, that of the fictional Sr. Lucy, whose disturbing preoccupation with Thérèse reveals ultimately no understanding of the saint’s soul, the spiritual transubstantiation is missing entirely.
Yet there’s no rationalizing or psychologizing Thérèse’s radical selflessness and spiritual zeal for others. "I can’t pray for you," one sister tells her. "We all agree — you deflect the prayers onto others. You pass on all your gifts." Before such revelations as that, psychoanalysis is reduced to silence.
These inexplicable flashes extend an aura of mystery, if one cares to see it, even to areas where it would be possible to settle for reductionistic explanations. Are the appetites "transubstantiated" only by substitute-formation? Or might they really be taken up and transformed utterly into something else? Is the final explanation from below or from above? Freud might have had a point, after all, without necessarily being right about everything.
“Ordinary girl. Extraordinary soul” is the tagline of Thérèse, Catholic actor-director Leonardo Defilippis’s reverent, uplifting, straightforward biopic of the Little Flower. Of the tagline’s two clauses, the film’s special burden seems to be the first part, “ordinary girl.”
Joan of Arc, the warrior-saint who wore men’s garb and was burned at the stake, would at first glance seem to be an odd role model for a girl whose greatest aspiration was to wear the habit of a cloistered nun and who died in the convent of tuberculosis.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.