Gilding the Little Flower

For all its virtues, Thérèse remains an aesthetic, not a religious, achievement 

To write ill of the movie Thérèse seems churlish. Its intentions are noble, their execution reverent. In this, the godless late twentieth century, a French director, Alain Cavalier, has made a movie about a nun which does not mock celibacy or humility, indulge in cheap Freudian reductionism or paint cloistered saints as self-preoccupied neurotics. As played by Catherine Mouchet, the Thérèse Martin, later to be known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, that emerges from the screenplay by Camille de Casabianca, Cavalier’s daughter, is a charming, energetic, and handsome young woman with the gentle sense of humor which also marked the author of The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse’s autobiography. Displayed in simple, arresting camera images, her piety is never hyperglycemic. Three other Martin sisters, all Carmelite nuns at Lisieux in Normandy with Thérèse, are similarly well played, as is Louis Martin, the girls’ patient father (now considered probably a saint in his own right) and the convent’s Reverend Mother, fretting over finances and resenting the placid Martin girls.

Nor does Cavalier idealize convent life. The nuns at Lisieux are a varied bunch and all too human. Some are crotchety old women, others gossipy young ones. A widow among them treasures a picture of her dead husband; another nun has a former suitor among the local tradesmen. Life in a convent — working, eating, and sleeping always in the company of others not of one’s own choosing just an elbow’s distance away — can’t be any picnic, and it certainly is not one in Cavalier’s movie. St. Thérèse herself wrote of “imperfect souls” among the sisters whose annoying mannerisms and touchy dispositions led other nuns to avoid them politely. Although Thérèse herself became a great saint, the convent at Lisieux produced no others we know of. The movie treats human imperfections as fairly as human holiness.

Critics have heaped praise upon the movie. What they like about the film can strike a Catholic as peculiar. Most have fastened on a nun named Sister Lucie (an invention of the film; she does not appear in the book). Clearly depicted as a neurotic who complains incessantly and eventually leaves the order, Sister Lucie lovingly describes nuns eating lepers’ scales, and in one revolting episode, drinks the tubercular Thérèse’s spit. These fetishims have been praised by the critics as supreme examples of Catholic piety.

Most touching are the huge audiences the film has drawn. Screenings of Thérèse are sellouts in my city. To see the film one recent weekend, a friend and I had to make two trips. Saturday night was a complete loss, and to make sure we could get seats for a seven o’clock screening the next night, I bought the tickets two hours early, fighting my way through a dense crowd gathered for the five o’clock show. They were mostly prosperous-looking young people. Shivering in the winter chill in their Reeboks and Guess? windbreakers, these children of the children of the Sixties were flocking to a movie about something utterly alien to the values their liberated elders had taught them — a film about a chaste and pious Catholic girl who, in 1888, shuts herself up in a convent at age 15 to be a bride of Christ, then dies a few uneventful years later of an unsightly disease, tuberculosis.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux a few generations ago was one of the Church’s most popular saints, her book a best-seller. But her kind of personalized, sentimental fin de siècle Catholicism is something the high-minded devotional reformers who followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council wanted to leave in the dust. Nonetheless, judging from their chuckles during the movie, it seemed clear that while these post-Vatican II young folks might not have understood very well what St. Thérèse was all about, they admired her spunk.

For all its virtues, however, the movie Thérèse is hollow at the core, an aesthetic exercise, not a religious one. Like all French films on serious subjects, it is, of course, much too pretty, improving on nature at every turn. Even shabby convent corridors and such homely scenes as nuns gutting fish have their minimalist beauty. The movie also has an arty, hothouse effect, deliberately intended by Cavalier, who shot every single scene indoors and at the middle distance. This is false to the real Thérèse, whose book reveals that she loved the outdoors and was something of a junior naturalist before she entered the convent, raising rabbits, silkworms, and pet birds. She also meticulously described all the sights and sounds of a rail pilgrimage she and her father made to Italy, including a visit to the Pope dramatized in the movie, where she begged Leo XIII to let her be a nun well before the usual age of 18 or 20. Even when she was dying, Thérèse lay outside in the convent garden to finish her book. Cavalier mistakes cloisters for claustrophobia.

Worst of all, Thérèse displays no sense of what religious life is all about. The movie’s makers knew that nuns are supposed to be brides of Christ, so they played that for all it was worth, as literally as possible. Nuns are shown swooning over the Canticle of Canticles, as though it were the only book in the Bible they ever read. Thérèse flirtatiously fans a crucifix in one episode (how she got the fancy fan is not disclosed; it certainly seems incongruous with her vow of poverty). The nuns occasionally pray before an altar whose only icon is a lurid etching of Christ wearing a crown of thorns, and one nun penitentially flogs the Reverend Mother, who has come to repent of her meanness to Thérèse.

But what the nuns mostly do in this movie is chat with one another. There is no sense of monastic discipline or of monastic hardships such as fasting, and there is certainly no sense of the orderly division of a convent day, from before dawn until after dusk, into periods of work and prayer, speech and silence. Except for Thérèse, a sort of slave as a novice, not one nun does a lick of work. Their lives, far from self-abnegating, appear utterly self-indulgent. They while away their time artfully sublimating erotic feelings into vaguely religious ones. In one peculiar scene, the Carmelites, shipped a case of champagne for Christmas, get tight and dance about with each other.

As for prayer, the nuns are never seen in the chapel, a place which was the center of the real St. Thérèse’s spiritual life. Prayer has been central to the Carmelites since St. Thérèse’s sixteenth-century namesake, St. Teresa of Avila, revitalized the order. As with other orders of contemplative men and women, the chief purpose of the Carmelites is to pray for the rest of us. St. Thérèse conceived of her particular mission as praying for priests (she had two brothers who died in childhood), and especially for missionaries. She was also a devotee of the Virgin. Not so much as a statue of Mary appears in the film; the nuns’ rosaries are mere belt decorations.

The movie depicts St. Thérèse as a born saint, a holy innocent who floated untempted to sanctity, except for a brief crisis of faith taken from the book. This could not be further from the truth. Thérèse Martin’s autobiography reveals that she was actually a born “princess,” a finicky youngest child, prone to psychosomatic ailments, who slighted easily and fell into rages when she failed to get her way. Had she not determined to become a saint early on, she would likely have remained difficult all her life: a good woman, certainly, but touchy and prone to dark moods.

The Story of a Soul is a powerful book because it records a daily struggle against venial sin. Mortal sins, the grave ones, are relatively easy to avoid. At the very least, the signposts are up, flashing red lights which warn of danger. Venial sins, those petty, incessant, debilitating lapses of everyday life — the trifling bursts of anger at trivial wrongs, the minor failures of charity, the yieldings to cruel gossip-mongering — arise from our flawed natures, but also from life’s daily grind of small annoyances. “Life is one damned thing after another,” wrote Dorothy Parker. And hell, to paraphrase Sartre, is other people.

The sister behind Thérèse at chapel fidgeting with her rosary beads, the small injustices from superiors — these could try the patience of a saint, and they did. Thérèse’s “little way,” as she called it (she was overly fond of diminutives), was a never-ending battle to beat these temptations into opportunities for grace. Thérèse’s humility made her transparent, in a sense. She was able to experience immediately and overwhelmingly God’s great love for the most insignificant of His creatures. St. Thérèse was a true mystic and spiritual heiress of her great and more learned Spanish namesake.

The Story of a Soul is likely to seem a strange artifact for an age like ours, vaguely embarrassed about religious emotion. The common wisdom is that St. Thérèse wasn’t very bright. The book actually reveals a quite intelligent young woman with remarkable powers of observation, who got prizes in school and was promoted to assistant mistress of novices at the convent before she fell ill. Thérèse quit school at age 14 and she hardly ever ventured out of small-town Normandy, however, and her style seems mired in permanent, gushing adolescence. Today’s readers will find rough going with some of her excesses, including a mawkish mock “wedding invitation” she penned to amuse her sisters, which includes a bid by God the Father and the Virgin Mary to Thérèse’s espousal to Christ.

Nonetheless, the simplicity and sincerity of the author are overpowering. The Story of a Soul is best read as an exemplar of a now-lost Catholic culture, an etiolation of the baroque, that persisted in the Western world from the Council of Trent through the 1950s, when I was a child. Like the little Thérèse Martin and countless other Catholic schoolchildren, I made miniature May altars every year. Mine, on my bureau, featured birthday-cake candles, flowers in shot glasses, and my three-inch plastic statue of Our Lady of Grace. This culture had its maudlin, laughable side, but it was vivid, with its numberless saints, its florid hymns and the saccharine holy cards parochial school pupils got as prizes and traded with each other as adornments for their missals. Mostly tasteless, if engaging, the popular Catholic culture sustained sporadic bursts of a high Catholic culture which refused to die despite the increasing secularization of intellectual life. In France, writers like Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanos and filmmakers like Robert Bresson were indirectly in debt to St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

That the makers of Thérèse failed to understand this culture vitiates the movie’s historical accuracy. In one liturgical episode, the lacy albs and gold-encrusted Roman chasubles are just right, but the words are, anachronistically, from the Mass that Pope Paul VI introduced in 1970.

The movie’s failure to understand what Thérèse herself was all about is an ominous lapse. One need only compare Thérèse to the far more dynamic and engaging documentary, Mother Theresa. The makers of that film confessed to interviewers that when they began their five-year endeavor, their admiration for Mother Theresa was strictly for her heroic human side, but as time went by, they began to perceive that she also had a divine mission. That perception shows in the film. Naturally, Mother Theresa lends herself to such perceptions more easily than the contemplative St. Thérèse; one can see the palpable good Mother Theresa does in every sick child and dying beggar her missionaries hold. But Mother Theresa also manages to convey a powerful sense of the order’s religious core, with the masses which begin and center the nuns’ days and the feeling with which they describe their vocations.

Thérèse is thus a true post-Christian endeavor, made by people to whom the Christian faith is an incomprehensible bygone. Viewing its reconstruction of the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is like viewing a reconstruction of life in Linear-A Mycenae, of whose artifacts much is known but whose writing cannot be read. Cavalier and his crew did their homework, and they got the costumes right. Nonetheless, these filmmakers in the nominally Catholic country which produced this Catholic saint 100 years ago could not understand her. The implications are enormous and sad. In a recent article in The American Spectator, Tom Bethell wrote of a visit to West Germany which included a frigid and deteriorating Cologne Cathedral and tightly locked Catholic churches in the center of West Berlin on a Saturday morning. Are these signs of the death of Catholicism in Europe or even of Europe itself?

One crumb of comfort: Catherine Mouchet’s radiant Thérèse of Lisieux breaks through the emptiness of the movie. She is pulling them in. These sleek young people in the audience are clearly starved for faith, even the echo of faith. Perhaps some of them will even read The Story of a Soul.


  • Charlotte Low

    At the time this article was published, Charlotte Low was a senior editor of Insight magazine.

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