Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Lives of Thérèse’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


The Lives of Thérèse (Les Vies de Thérèse)
(France, 55 min.)
Dir. Sébastien Lifshitz
Programme: Singular Sensation(s) (Toronto Premiere)

How does one depict real death on screen? Filming the final days of Thérèse Clerc, a French feminist and LGBT activist, director Sébastien Lifshitz helps his subject tackle two taboos: aging and dying. Les Vies de Thérèse, the winner of the 2016 Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, openly yet sensitively tackles its controversial subject matter.

Thérèse Clerc is a passionate and unique figure. Initially accepting life as a typical housewife in the 1950s, she bloomed through a political awakening inspired by Marxist ideology and Protestant women’s groups. Openly coming out as a lesbian, she became committed to social causes: queer rights, the legalization of abortion, worker’s rights. The political is tied to Clerc’s life: we watch archival footage of protests, and hear her contemporary thoughts on the issues, while her loved ones discus her place within the movements she embraced.

The political is always personal. Paired with public demonstrations and rallies are Clerc’s children who express their own feminist leanings, thanks to their mother. In this connection, the film opens itself to the deeply distinct experience of Clerc’s life. A public figure working to heal broad social injustices, we are equally able to look at Thérèse Clerc as individual. She is warm and funny, as ardent about her causes as she is about everyday life, and is, in return, deeply cared for by those around her. Within this individualised experience, Les Vies de Thérèse brings in death. We are given a contrast: throughout her life, Clerc worked with others, whether that be in political groups, or the family unit; here, she must go alone.

In moving scenes, we see Clerc’s family members attempting to come to terms with her death, tearfully discussing how to support her and themselves. It is difficult to watch, but also necessary. Rarely have we seen such a frank depiction of the end of life as we do here. The film never allows itself to succumb to tragedy, and constantly reinvigorates itself through a mixture of history: Thérèse Clerc’s illness, her faltering body, is contrasted by her energy and brightness. We watch her laboured breathing, only to turn to stories of her childhood, or eloquently angry political interviews. Till the very end, Clerc is a magnetic figure, who expresses her prescient thoughts and emotions in an always warmly engaging manner. Never didactic, but never losing the importance of politics, Les Vies de Thérèse depicts death with vitality.

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