Emile Zola and Park Chan-Wook

Do you know which book Thirst is based on? Yes? Ok, but what came before Thérèse Raquin?

A woman is seen standing behind a man in a kitchen. They are both staring in the same direction.

I recently talked about the cemetery we carry. Meaning that, as we travel through life and through time, we have to accept the vanishing of our past. Most of the time, this is symbolized by the loss of relatives, but it can also be said of fiction we consumed, stories we memorized. We do not really exist as an entity, our brain is simply trying to build a coherent narrative of things we experienced and lies it told itself in order to maintain order.

I guess, it’s on this premise although less defined that some people build their argument that nothing new can come out of art. Said person will advocate that no stories are really fresh, that all forms of art are just a rehashing of previous works. I personally don’t think that’s true. I once wrote a story about a spider trying to solve the accidental death of a YouTuber because of a time glitch and I’m pretty sure no one ever told this peculiar story.

Yet, I’ll gladly admit that whatever work which gets out, it’s almost certain to have been influenced by previous digested art pieces. A mere copy, no ? But an intricate and personal patchwork? Certainly.

It’s really no surprise Emile Zola did not come up with the idea behind Thérèse Raquin by his lonesome. In fact, while most people would point to one of his previous short stories, Un Mariage d’Amour as the point of origin of the novel; Zola always admitted that his idea for writing his character study first came from one singular piece. A serial named La Vénus de Gordes by Adolphe Bellot and Ernest Daudet which was published through Le Figaro in 1866. Remember that, at the time, Zola was trying to make a name for himself and already worked for Le Figaro from time to time. Seeing as this was the golden age of serials it’s really no wonder the young writer fell for Bellot and Daudet’s work.

In La Vénus de Gordes, a young woman from a rich family named Mergai, is abducted by a man named Pascal who wants to marry her. In his endeavor, the man hires the help of his friend Furbice and an old woman. But, two years later, as Pascal’s health degrades slowly due to a disease, Furbice and Mergai become lovers and decide to kill off the burdening husband. This sends them both to the penal colony, in which Margai soon dies.

It’s this tragic story that made Zola envisioned a tale about two lovers being so passionate, they’d kill the third man in their ménage-à-trois. Soon, he would write Un Mariage d’Amour, either as a palliative or proof-of-concept . In this short story, a young woman who married too soon to a sickly husband, falls deeply in love with his best friend. Soon, the best friend who wants the spouse all to himself, drowns the husband. Alas, the crime already took its toll on the new-found item and they become more and more suspicious of one another, going as far as planning to kill their partner.

The short story is only 4 pages long. Yet it’s almost point by point what will happen in Thérèse Raquin. Interestingly enough, it would be published in Le Figaro as was La Vénus de Gordes. Armed with this published piece, Zola would go on and find another publisher to whom he would sell a longer version of this tragic story of passions.

I get that reading some fiction tends to make one creator go: “Oh, this is not the way I would go”. So, I legitimately get why so many details are present in both creations. In Thérèse Raquin, Zola would soon add the character of the old woman from the Daudet’s story, he would detail the sickly and pallid nature of the husband in great length. Still, he would also add parts of his private life, such as the Thursday parties which were in fact real life events taking place in his home. Just like he would make the best friend in his story be an aspiring painter, for at the time, Zola mainly hung around with painters.

It is his frank and, for the time disgusting, description of the real world that would give him solace, though. Soon after the release of Thérèse Raquin, in a serial format, some critics would raise their voice, claiming this was nothing but “putrid litterature”. People coined a new term simply to admonest Zola’s work, as some coined the Saw series “torture porn” in a vain effort to detract the whole franchise.

The noise, though, was all Zola wanted. See, at the time, he had to prove himself to the world. The naturalist writer he would become, with firmly embedded ideas, was not yet in sight. Zola was hungry, and he’d found a way to stick his foot in the door.

Yellow cover with ads all around, at the center, a drawing of Thérèse being haunted by her drowned husband.

In Thérèse Raquin, a painter stumbles upon a childhood friend he’s not seen for a while. Soon, he discovers said friend lives with his mother in a small shop and is married to a gal named Thérèse Raquin. Painter does not think the woman is beautiful or anything, but she suddenly engulfs him in a passion neither can control. Soon, blinded by lust, they decide to kill off the husband. But the time they have to wait, in order to get married, extinguishes their passion. The body of their victims seems to spread them apart. Soon they have to deal with the accusatory eye of the decaying stepmother, too.

There are some fantasy elements, sort of, in Zola’s story. The victim bit Laurent when he was murdered, and this scar, on the neck, becomes red from time to time indicating the guilt of its possessor. There is this black cat that seems to judge them, and Laurent who can only paint the face of the man he once killed.

It’s worth noting Thérèse Raquin was adapted first for the stage by Zola himself, before the BBC and Marcel Carnet — much later- turned the novel into a movie. Tet, to me, it’s in 2009 that the best adaptation would come out. As a vampire story nonetheless, directed by Park Chan Wook!

It all came in a dream. Chan-Wook recalls he once had this very precise vision of a vampire priest strangling a woman he loved. The man of god, upon realizing what he was doing, had to revive her and face what he had become. This vision would haunt the director enough that when he directed his first feature JSA, he went to Song Kang-oh to ask him if he’d want to play in the piece. Sorta reminds me of Hostile, uh.

Problem was, the director had nothing else than this picture, really. A man of god realizing he’d turned into a monster. How could a director show his culpability? The guilt? Through the use of a mirror? The filmmaker says he tried to solve this as a visual puzzle. Since he had no plot, he toyed about the way he would block the scene. This demonstrates he toyed with this tiny scene for a long time. Another example would be how in Three… Extremes, the short film directed by Park Chan Wook, speaks of a filmmaker trying to make a vampire movie.

That’s until he stumbled upon Thérèse Raquin. When Chan-Wook picked up the book and read it, he instantly thought he could adapt it but then it hit him. If he were to mix Zola’s book with this vampire idea of his, maybe the plot of the book might fill the blank he constantly saw within his story. One of the factors that decided the filmmaker was that, if he were to intertwine both stories, his priest would have to face his action through the cold staring eyes of the stepmother. In a way, his blocking puzzle he’d played with for over ten years was finally solved.

Park Chan-Wook was more famous now, having just directed the Vengeance Trilogy and I am a Cyborg. He’d won at Cannes and this might explain why Thirst became the first South Korean movie to benefit from having funds granted by an American company in this case Universal through Focus Pictures. Soon, the filmmaker assembled a crew of screenwriters and actors and director of photography he’d previously worked with.

Despite a welcoming audience, the movie had to deal (much like Thérèse Raquin in its hay day) with the pressure of censorship. Allegedly because its poster was too graphic. In South Korea, the leg of the actress had to be erased so as not to evoke any sexual innuendo. It is said that in some US countries, the hands of the woman trying to strangle the priest had to go as well.

Reading interviews of Chan-Wook through this time, it’s interesting to see that this worried him a bit. All his life he had wanted to write a story about a priest because a priest once told Chan-Wook’s dad that his son could become a bishop, which scared the bejesus of the young kid. Yet, the director kept a reputable image of the Church. In fact, it was because a man of God would have a real moral dilemma in dealing with murders that he wanted to shoot this piece in the first place.

Not seeing his film as an attack on religion but more as a study on guilt and culpability. The filmmaker was shocked when he realized a lot of people couldn’t go past the fact that he tried to picture the man behind the clothes.

A study of pulsion and regret.

Which had already been told, but not through a vampire prism.

Next week will be fiction week, I wrote for you a small piece named Copaganda.

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I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.

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Basile Lebret

Basile Lebret

I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.

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