Few film-makers are as distinctive as Werner Herzog. Indeed, he could be the dictionary definition of an auteur, as he has always produced highly personal pictures and has made a habit of revisiting recurring themes, such as the individual's relationship with his environment, the manner in which people respond to pressure and extremes, and how humanity fits into the grander scheme of things (whatever form that might happen to take). Yet, for all his quirks and preoccupations as both a person and an artist, one rarely comes across the term `Herzogian', as one does `Hitchcockian' or `Godardian'. The National Film Theatre is currently running a two-month retrospective that offers a few clues into Herzog's Weltbild and confirms his status as one of the most restlessly inquisitive and consistently surprising talents in world cinema. As part of this tribute, the BFI has also reissued Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), which started Herzog's partnership with the legendarily unpredictable actor, Klaus Kinski.

An introductory crawl reveals that, following the Spanish invasion of their territories, the Incas devised the legend of a fabulous city that contained more treasure than any other on earth. Determined to claim the booty for Philip II of Spain and the Roman Catholic Church, Gonzalo Pizarro went in search of El Dorado, with Don Lope de Aguirre as his second in command. The account of the ill-fated expedition written by Brother Gaspar de Carvajal serves as the source of the ensuing action, which begins on Christmas Day, 1560.

Peering down on the heads of the conquistadors and their Indian captives picking their way along a winding jungle incline, Thomas Mauch's camera makes it clear from the outset that this is a reckless and treacherous mission. Brandishing their pikestaffs and wearing heavy armour, the Spaniards trudge through the mud as their equipment, supplies and heavy weaponry are born by horses, llamas and slaves. As they reach a rampaging river, Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) declares that all will be well from here, although Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is far from convinced and fears that they will all be dragged under.

In voiceover, Brother Gaspar (Del Negro) declares the Indians to be useless, as they succumb to disease the moment the temperature changes. However, there was no time to give them proper Christian burials, as the terrain was so forbidding that progress was slow. Eventually, with the new year approaching, Pizarro makes camp and announces that a party of 40 souls will be given a week to find El Dorado before the expedition is abandoned. He places Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge and gives him permission to take his mistress, Inez de Atienza (Helena Rojo). Aguirre's adolescent daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera), is also allowed to go along, while Gaspar and Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) will respectively represent Church and State. Pizarro uses a stencil to sign the document and warns that he will only wait a week for Ursua to report his findings.

On 4 January, the force sets sail on three wooden rafts that are swept along the fast-flowing river. Ursua and Aguirre are forced to watch, however, as one craft is caught by the rapids and trapped against a rocky bank. Ursua sends Armando (Armando Polanah) to see if the crew can be rescued and, while they wait, Inez and Flores bathe and some of the soldiers build a makeshift shelter. As night falls, however, the sky suddenly lights up and gunfire rings out across the valley. The following morning, Armando finds six corpses on the raft and wonders whether the Indian oarsmen have found sanctuary with the local tribe. He urges his men to be vigilant as they return to camp, but one is caught in a foot trap and swept high into a tree, with his dripping blood being the only clue to his whereabouts. 

Ursua wants to bury the victims with due ceremony, but Aguirre knows they stand to lose more men just retrieving the cadavers and orders Perucho (Daniel Ades) to ensure that the cannon doesn't rust up by firing a test shot directly into the raft and blowing it to smithereens. Inez wants Aguirre punished for such a sacrilegious act, but Ursua agrees that they need to show the Indians their power and lets the matter rest. On 8 January, however, they wake to find that the river has swollen dramatically overnight and swept away the remaining rafts. Aguirre orders Perucho to start building new ones, but Ursua insists they should abandon the trek and return to Pizarro.

As he speaks, Ursua is shot in the shoulder and another trooper rallying to his cause is gunned down. Aguirre has Armondo locked in a cage to prevent him from aiding Ursua and reminds the men that Hernán Cortés disobeyed orders and became rich and famous after conquering the Aztecs. He convinces the men to depose Ursua as the leader of the expedition and, when Inez begs Gaspar to intervene, he tells her that the Church has always taken the side of Might over Right. Consequently, he helps draft a document that frees them from fealty to Philip II and they vote for Guzman to become the new Emperor of El Dorado, with Aguirre as his deputy.

Two days later, Armando is murdered, along with the soldier guarding his cell. Aguirre accuses Ursua and demands his execution. However, Guzman orders a trial so that Ursua can defend himself and so that that any punishment can carry a semblance of legitimacy. Perucho opines that Ursua is a traitor and both Pizarro's black slave Okello (Edward Roland) and Spanish-speaking Indian Balthasar (Alejandro Chavez) confess that Ursua had given them payments that could be construed as bribes. Inez tries to speak up for her lover, but Gaspar dismisses her as too confused to be a reliable witness and he finds Ursua guilty and sentences him to hang. Aguirre is quietly satisfied with the verdict, but it is immediately commuted by Guzman to celebrate the day the Moors were driven out of Castile and he concludes his judgement by confiscating half of the prisoner's wealth and dividing the rest among the soldiers.

The new rafts are completed by 12 January and the conquistadors soon see fires burning on the bank. Okello is sent to investigate, as the Indians are supposedly scared of black men and horses, and he finds bunches of bananas inside the empty huts. However, as they scout around the settlement, they realise that the occupants are cannibals and beat a hasty retreat. By 20 January, Aguirre has had the rafts lashed together and built a canopy in the centre so that they can find shelter from the blazing sun. He has also had a toilet hut built for Guzman and finds a cuddly critter for Flores to pet. But Inez has nothing to do with him and stands watch over Ursua to prevent him from being assassinated.

The river has suddenly become sluggish and this makes them sitting targets for the tribes spying on them from the jungle. When a horse kicks over a fire, Aguirre picks up a burning keg of gunpowder and hurls it into the water, while Guzman dives off the raft to protect himself. In the furore, however, one of the band is killed by a poison dart and Aguirre orders the men to fire their muskets into the air to scare the Indians away. He also tries to raise morale by having one of the slaves play his pan pipes. But fresh hope comes on 24 January, when a Yagua fisherman and his wife approach in their canoe and Aguirre notices that he is wearing a golden charm around his neck. When Balthasar questions him, he points in the direction of El Dorado, only to be set upon when Gaspar offers him a copy of the Bible and he replies that he cannot hear the Word of God emanating from within.

Guzman draws a map and claims all the territory they have seen for his empire. Despite his initial misgivings, he is now warming to the task and tucks into the delicacies that Okello feeds him. The others are becoming discontented, however, as grain supplies are running low and, when the last horse breaks free from its tether and has to be pushed into the water to stop it stampeding, the men grab the food from the distracted Guzman's table. But the horse is swept away and Gaspar complains that they could have eaten meat for a week if Aguirre hadn't been so hot-headed.

A few days later, Guzman dies on leaving his toilet and Gaspar records in his journal that Ursua was taken away the following day and hanged from a tree by Perucho and his cohorts. As they aimlessly drift downstream, they hear Indians on the bank and Balthasar translates that they are chanting `meat is floating by'. This provokes Aguirre, who fires the cannon into their camp and torches the huts. Some of the men are killed, while others gorge on salt they find spilt on the ground. But Inez has had enough and wanders into the jungle alone to accept her fate.

One of the soldiers mumbles to his friend that Aguirre has lost control. But he overhears the mutinous remark and orders Perucho to behead him in front of everyone as a warning. He proclaims that he is the `wrath of God' and that those who cross him will perish, while those who remain by his side will be richly rewarded. Over the ensuing days, Flores's pet gives birth to babies. But the arrow attacks from the bank continue and, on 1 February, Gaspar announces that the men have had enough and believe El Dorado to be nothing more than a myth. However, Aguirre retorts that Mexico was real and he refuses to blaze a trail for others to follow without getting his due reward.

By 21 February, though, many of the survivors are struggling to stand, while others are hallucinating from fever. Rising water levels prevent them from getting ashore for food and Gaspar is forced to abandon his journal when a comrade drinks the last of his ink in the belief it is medicine. Even Flores regards her father with despair, while Okello points out a sailing ship that he insists is stuck in a treetop. However, he is hit with an arrow and Gaspar and Flores are also wounded, leaving Aguirre to strut across the deck in a frantic effort to drive away the monkeys that have overrun the raft. He dreams about sailing to Trinidad and establishing a kingdom in Mexico, where he could marry his daughter and breed racially pure offspring. As the camera swoops along the river and circles the craft to symbolise the final futility of the mission, Aguirre is seen as the last man standing, but one who has been beaten by his unfamiliarity with the terrain, by the cunning of his largely unseen adversary and by his own hubris.

A fiction posing as history, this is a magisterial account of a deluded megalomaniac pursuing a dream that is actually the figment of a supposedly uncivilised imagination. Herzog took his inspiration from the chronicle of Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal, who served as chaplain to Pizarro and accompanied Francisco de Orellana along the Napo River in the search for La Canela, a place reputed for its cinnamon rather than its gold. The real Gaspar survived his odyssey, became a missionary and completed the Relación that was finally published in 1865. But Herzog wasn't interested in such mundane truths. He was only concerned with the legend that highlighted the greed, hypocrisy and inhumanity of the conquistadors who sought to subjugate, exploit and plunder in the name of religion.

However, as is usually the case with Herzog, the narrative is merely a pretext for taking an individual out of their comfort zone and pitching them into a hostile environment that not only reflects their plight, but also exacerbates the flaws and weaknesses that will compound the situation and either bring about the protagonist's doom or an exceedingly hard won redemption. In the case of Aguirre, he learns nothing from his experiences and still seeks his elusive goal even after it would have become clear to any other rational being that he has failed as a leader, as a father and as a man.

Fittingly, several creation myths have grown up around the shoot in the Amazonian jungle, with Herzog reportedly pulling a gun on Kinski when he threatened to quit because of the director's increasingly unreasonable demands. But whatever the state of Herzog's relationship with Kinski, he managed to coax a remarkable performance out of him. His eyes frequently blaze with simmering malevolence and haunted dementia in close-ups that isolate him from his companions while still fixing him firmly in the wilderness that has inflamed his ambition and robbed him of his reason. The decision to keep the Indians largely invisible reinforces the sense of entrapment and paranoia that also fuels Guzman's delusions of grandeur and Gaspar's decision to put his faith in Aguirre rather than God.

Accompanied by an eerie score composed for the choir-organ by Florian Fricke of the rock band Popol Vuh (whose name is derived from Mayan mythology), Thomas Mauch's views of the daunting topography are mesmerising. But the uncredited production and costume design are also worthy of note, as are Herbert Prasch's sound and Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus's editing. However, this is undeniably Herzog's picture and goes a long way to justifying his reputation as a cinematic visionary. He would put Kinski through similar hell during the production of Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Cobra Verde (1987), but they would never improve upon this intense exposé of the insignificance, arrogance and folly of humankind.

Just as Kinski found himself a prisoner of the roles he played for Herzog, so Audrey Tautou continues to live in the shadow of Amélie Poulain. Since playing the elfin charmer in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's impish 2001 romantic comedy, Tautou has tried to shake the image by playing an endangered Turkish maid in Stephen Frears's thriller, Dirty Pretty Things (2002), a woman searching for her fiancé's remains on the Great War battlefields in Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement (2004), cryptologist Sophie Neveu in Ron Howard's take on Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the eponymous fashion designer in Anne Fontaine's biopic, Coco Before Chanel (2009). Yet, in between, she has played a number of romcom heroines that have only reinforced her reputation for winsome adorableness.

Tautou's latest bid to redefine her screen self sees her take a role first essayed in 1962 by Emmanuelle Riva (then best known for Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, 1959 and now for Michael Haneke's Amour, 2012). However, while Georges Franju collaborated with Nobel laureate François Mauriac on this adaptation of his scathing denunciation of 1920s French society, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Claude Miller (in what would prove to be his last picture) reunited with TV veteran Natalie Carter (with whom he had scripted Un Secret in 2007) to disregard the flashbacking structure of the original text and film and present the action in strict chronological order. This has the unfortunate effect of burying the major incident in a surfeit of backstory whose import only becomes clear in retrospect.

In the summer of 1922, 15 year-old Thérèse Larroque (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) comes to stay with best friend Anne de la Trave (Matilda Marty-Giraut) at the family home in the coastal town of L'Esperance in the Landes region near Bordeaux. She is shocked when Anne shoots a pigeon in the woods during an idyllic day of cycling and lazing in a boat on the lake. Thérèse announces that she will marry Anne's brother, Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), and they look forward to the time when they can be sisters. However, Thérèse is as much a pragmatist as a romantic and views the match as an opportunity to lay claim to the Desqueyroux pine forests, on which the family fortune depends.

Annes's mother (Catherine Arditi) worries that Thérèse thinks too much and may have picked up some of the pernicious socialist ideas espoused by her intellectual father (Francis Perrin). However, Bernard jokes that not every marriage can be made in heaven and makes no secret of the fact he thinks his mother's second husband, De la Trave (Jean-Claude Calon), is something of a buffoon. He is also concerned that Anne finds a suitable companion and is unaware that she has eyes for wealthy Portuguese student Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber). Indeed, not even Thérèse suspects her simmering passion, as they lie innocently in bed together and Thérèse hopes that Bernard will save her from her wilder notions and the disorder in her brain.

The couple tie the knot in May 1928 and Bernard is disgruntled when Thérèse (now Audrey Tautou) disappears during the reception and Anne (Anaïs Demoustier) has to calm him down. She also encourages Thérèse not to despair when she complains in letters home about the tedium of her honeymoon in the Black Forest. Anne also confides that she has started seeing Jean and describes how considerate he is during their chaste love-making. But her covert dalliance is discovered and her mother confines her to the house because the Azevedos are Jewish and have a history of tuberculosis. Envious of her sister-in-law's passion, Thérèse burns the photograph of Jean she sends her and tells Bernard on the train home that she will never do anything to blot the family escutcheon. Nevertheless, she imagines herself opening the door of the speeding steam locomotive and jumping to her death.

By July, Thérèse is safely ensconced on the Desqueyroux estate and is embarrassed when her father comes to dine and argues with De la Trave about former Prime Minister Aristide Briand's pursuit of continental peace. She also feels sorry for Anne, who is only allowed out of her room for meals and has become convinced that Jean has deserted her because his letters have been withheld. When Anne consents to go to Biarritz for her health, Thérèse offers to see Jean, but becomes distracted by Bernard participating in a religious procession through the town and her periodic visits to her Aunt Clara (Isabelle Sadoyan). Indeed, it is only after Bernard experiences chest pains while out hunting and Dr Pedemay (Gérard Bayle) prescribes some heart medicine that the now-pregnant Thérèse ventures to Jean's lakeside hut. He insists that he had never mentioned marriage to Anne and she suggests he lets her down gently in a sentimental letter.

A few days later, Thérèse sits on the jetty and listens to Jean's missive, which she finds trite. But he insists that Anne is a simple soul and will quickly forget him and find true love. He returns to his studies in Paris just as Anne comes home to accuse Thérèse of treachery in taking the family's side against her. Bernard strikes her for speaking out of turn and bolts her into her room like a stray dog. Thérèse is taken aback by the ferocity of his temper, yet teases him that he only married her to produce an heir. In December, she goes to her in-laws at St Clair to have her child and discovers that Anne is the virtual prisoner of valet Balion (Max Morel) and his housemaid wife Balionte (Françoise Goubert). She gives birth to a daughter, but has no maternal feelings for little Marie and Anne is more than happy to look after her niece.

The following August, a fire breaks out in the pine forest and the entire village turns out to douse the flames. Thérèse is dismayed by how poorly Bernard manages the crisis, as 1200 acres are lost, and has a dream in which she sets light to another section of woodland with a deliberately dropped cigarette. She also fails to remind him that he has already taken his daily dose of the arsenic-based tonic and shows little concern when he falls ill during the night. Indeed, she convinces Pedemay that he is a fusspot who is feeling the strain caused by the conflagration. But a plan has begun to hatch in her mind and, the next day, she gives her husband a double dose of medicine and lets him add four more drops himself.

Seemingly devoted to Bernard, Thérèse nurses him as the illness persists and personally collects his prescription from Darquey the pharmacist (Jack Delbalat). But Pedemay is puzzled why the symptoms keep persisting and, when he summons a specialist from Bordeaux, they discover from Darquey's records that Thérèse has been forging signatures to acquire extra supplies. Bernard is taken to hospital and baby Marie is entrusted to Anne, while Thérèse is ordered to remain under the watchful eye of the Balions at St Clair while the family decide how best to proceed. Determined to avoid a scandal, Bernard refuses to have her charged with attempted murder and she is sued, instead, for forgery. Her father disowns her, but Bernard hires an excellent lawyer, Duros (Yves Jacques), to help with her defence. He even agrees to testify that Thérèse made an honest mistake, but he also informs her that the marriage is over and that she will be sent to live with Clara.

On the day of the trial, Bernard is asked about his illness and he convinces the judge (Frédéric Kneip) that he must have miscounted the drops because he was under so much pressure following the forest fire. Given his status in the district, his word is accepted and Thérèse is acquitted on 7 December 1929 after Darquey is persuaded to withdraw his complaint. Yet Bernard remains suspicious when Thérèse offers him a glass of water, as he explains how their relationship will be conducted in future. He proclaims that he will never forgive her (because he is convinced she tried to kill him for commercial rather than emotional reasons), but will accompany her to mass and the local street market in order to keep up appearances. Yet, while he stands beside her during Clara's funeral, he announces in October 1930 that he will no longer pay regular visits and will inform anyone who asks that she has become depressed and turned her back on the world.

Balionte tries to maintain Thérèse's spirits, as she loses weight and becomes increasingly ashen-faced. She also helps her dress smartly when Anne comes to introduce her feckless fiancé, Deguilhem (Jérôme Thibault). Everyone is surprised by Thérèse's physical deterioration when she joins the family in the drawing-room and Bernard shuffles uncomfortably as Anne tells her how well Marie is getting on. He realises he cannot allow her to waste away under his roof and, as they stroll together in the town, he promises her that she can leave St Clair after Anne's wedding. Thérèse gratefully accepts his terms and says she will live in a small hotel in Paris. As they stop at a café, Bernard asks Thérèse why she poisoned him and she lies by insisting she was after the pines. She asks for his forgiveness and he gives it with a sad, but curt nod. He laments that they didn't have a son, as the Desqueyroux name will die out, and hesitates for a moment before walking away. But, instead of asking whether they could try again, he merely tells Thérèse that the drinks have been paid for and the closing shot shows her walking towards the camera in the anonymity of a crowd with a faint smile on her lips.

Seeking to bring a touch of modernity to his first period piece, Claude Miller dilutes the fury at the core of a novel that François Mauriac had based on the right-wing Catholic bourgeois he had known in his native Landes and on the trial for attempted murder of Henriette-Blance Canaby, who was acquitted after her husband refused to testify against her. The decision to impose a conventional linearity similarly deprives the action of its intensity, while the removal of the interior monologue that allowed Mauriac's readers to get inside the mind of his much-maligned heroine leaves Audrey Tautou (who is far too old for the role) struggling to convey the complex motives of a chain-smoking twentysomething whose oppression and disappointment-cum-revulsion at the sexual act have largely been replaced by petulance and caprice.

Even more ruinously, Miller and Carter introduce an excess of ambiguity in outlining Thérèse's attitude to Anne's relationship with Jean. Does she want to drive them apart because she has a lingering crush on her friend or have his letters inflamed a curiosity to see if sex with him is more satisfying than it is with Bernard? Or is she simply bored with her stifling new lifestyle and needs a distraction? This might have been more apparent had Tautou not been asked to remain so unfathomably placid or had Miller opted to cast a more abrasive actor as Bernard than Gilles Lellouche, as he comes across as an empathetically genial and bumbling hypochondriac rather than the wilfully neglectful, callous and controlling cad that Philippe Noiret had fashioned in the Franju version. 

On the technical side, Gérard de Battista's cinematography, Laurence Brenguier's production design and by Jacqueline Bouchard's costumes are top drawer. But, while the performances are committed, they often feel self-consciously austere and even those who can forgive Miller for absolving this latterday Madame Bovary in a way her creator did not will find this study of middle-class provincialism and hypocrisy too sombre and premeditated to convince, let alone compel.

Finally, this week, echoes of Jaco Van Dormael's The Eighth Day (1996), Antonio Naharro and Álvaro Pastor's Yo, tambien (2009) and Hans Van Nuffel's Oxygen (2010) reverberate throughout Belgian Geoffrey Enthoven's road dramedy Come As You Are, which explores the sexual urges of the ailing and disabled. Utterly predictable in every regard and strangely chauvinist in its attitude towards women, this essentially means well and has its share of sweet and smileworthy moments. However, one of these days, someone is going to have to make a film about a dying or handicapped woman longing to lose her virginity.

Paraplegic Robrecht Vanden Thoren, near-blind Tom Audenaert and cancer-stricken Gilles De Schryver have long been friends. They are respectively cared for by ageing folks Robrect Vandem Thorem and Katelijne Verbeke, single mother Marilou Mermans and trendy parents Johan Heldenbergh and Karlijn Sileghem, who have tended to cosset them in an effort to make their lives more bearable. De Schryver's younger sister Kimke Desart doesn't see why he deserves so much fuss and is more than a little jealous when he is allowed to go on holiday to Spain with his pals.

What the trio have failed to divulge, however, is that they plan to visit a brothel that caters for the less able-bodied. But the best laid plans seem dashed when De Schryver learns that his tumour has become more aggressive and Heldenbergh and Sileghem refuse to let him travel. Undaunted, Vanden Thoren makes contact with replacement nurse-driver Isabelle de Hertogh, who agrees to chaperone them in her specially equipped minibus.

Convinced that the obese De Hertogh cannot understand Flemish, Vanden Thoren and De Schryver make fun of her, much to Audenaert's discomfort as he acts as translator. Moreover, they refuse her help when they stop for the night at a hotel and it is only when she pulls Audenaert out of a lake after he slips during a layby bathroom break that they accept her and she reveals that she has understood every word they've been saying.

Yet, having got along famously during a night camping under the stars, De Hertogh delivers the pals to their parents at a motel the next day. They plead to be allowed to continue their journey and the dying De Schryver swings the decision by making it his last request. As they drive on to their luxury Spanish villa, De Hertogh reveals that she had no option but to betray them as she had only just come out of prison after attacking her abusive husband and couldn't risk infringing the terms of her parole.
This news serves only to intensify Audenaert's growing affection for De Hertogh and he backs out of the brothel visit in order to be alone with her. But, even though Vanden Thoren and De Schryver finally realise their dream, the trip is destined to end on a sad note.

Occasionally sentimental, but laudably non-patronising in its depiction of impairment, Pierre De Clercq's screenplay ensures an amiable enough odyssey. A dream sequence showing the threesome almost celestially healthy is a slight miscalculation, but Enthoven's emphasis on normality keeps the action on track, even when it meanders into unnecessary digressions such as De Schryver's date with a pretty Spanish girl during an unsupervised night out. Moreover, the performances are fine, with Vanden Thoren being persuasively brattish and De Hertogh nicely understated as the brusque carer with a soft centre.