Therese and Isabelle
Directed by Radley Metzger (1968)
Therese and Isabelle is a charmed erotic gem, an adaptation by Radley Metzger of Violette Leduc’s novel of the same title. From the moment the film opens, with older Therese walking on the campus of her past, about to tread on all kinds of emotional layers and sexual awakenings, memories, and shrieks of pleasure, one can be reminded for a moment of Cléo, in Varda’s film Cléo 5 á 7 (1962), traversing Paris, on her avenues of self-transformation in real time. Therese moves through a more contemporary multi-layered time, her sense memory of her past unfolds into the actual scene she is recalling, as she promenades slowly, each step its own gesture, its own mind-field, bringing her story to life as it once happened. Therese and Isabelle centers around the two young women coming together as lovers in ecstatic intimacy in their girls’ school environment, coming to terms with their sexual appetites in a taboo setting. In gorgeous b/w cinematography and editing, the camera leaps gracefully from older Therese walking as if to absorb every cell of her environment as she once knew it, to the actual scenes in which she lived that same environment, filled with every bit of memory intact. Perhaps no other scene in cinema exists like the one in which Therese reaches her first orgasm solo in her convent-like cell of a room. Unlike the immense suffering in Jeanne’s tear-streamed face in Carl Dreyer’s Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1928), Therese’s face streams tears as she pleasures herself irrepressibly.
The thick, immediate friendship between Therese and Isabelle, their erotic fireworks and panting trysts not withstanding, calls up a film that came later-Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). A pair of opposites they are, and yet so enamored of each other that you can’t help but feel their chemistry in its many forms. It is a pleasure to see a film in with complete point of view from the two young women characters solely, specifically Therese’s, and from the point of view of their desire, in 1968. There is no other focus but theirs, hers, and this is consistently held. When a strapping young man enters in, he is only brought in for Therese’s experimentation and for her to resist his overused charms-he is dispensed. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) also springs to mind, but there is no relentless irreverence here, though there is rejection of the male lover, the stepfather, and school authorities. Not least, one may think of Chantal Ackerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1976). We begin with Therese, who then meets her reflection in Isabelle, then the male would-be lover, then reverts quickly back to Therese as her “elle.” Ackerman and Metzger both allow the space of limitless erotic female indulgence that makes these filmmakers so delicious to watch.
The film is very moving, in its way with time, and with the complete space Metzger gives his characters, their interior life, and their relationships to each other and to the environment they inhabit. One senses that everything has been felt between Therese and Isabelle.
(Having to leave this film early for a work commitment was one of the hardest moments ever departing the cinema before the credits rolled).