Americans (with English accents, pretending to be French) contemplate sex and death in gloomy love story
Directed by Charlie Stratton
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac
Who doesn’t love a good, “scandalous” love story. Unfortunately we’ve become so acclimated (some might say, addicted) to scandal these days, old-fashioned scandals can seem rather quaint. It’s hard to imagine a 150-year-old novel that could shock modern audiences. Take, for example, Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. Called “putrid” upon its release, the morality-skirting story has since been adapted into numerous plays, radio serials and motion pictures—including a 1991 stage play by American Neal Bell. That version forms the basis of In Secret, a new cinematic take by director Charlie Stratton—who just happened to direct the Los Angeles premiere of Bell’s play. There’s nothing in Zola’s original tale that we haven’t seen played out endlessly on the evening news and on decades’ worth of Lifetime movies. As far as scandalous tales go, it’s no Basic Instinct. But it is a darkly beautiful little slice of dirty-hemmed realism for those weary of corset-heavy Victorian romanticism.
As a young girl our heroine Thérèse is packed off to live with a distant aunt in the French countryside, while her father sails off to Africa with vague promises of returning for her. He doesn’t, and poor Thérèse wilts under her strict aunt’s roof. Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) dotes on her sickly son, but spares little affection for her niece. Thérèse (up-and-coming Olsen sister, Elizabeth Olsen) is treated like a common servant and spends her childhood playing nursemaid to wheezy little Camille (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series).
Upon coming of age, Camille decides he should move to Paris and look for a career. Naturally his clingy mom trails after him. Mom also figures she might as well marry off Thérèse and Camille to one another. (They’re only cousins, and nobody’s really sure about Thérèse’s mom anyway, so how close are the two really?) Camille buys a small store for his mother to run while he happily toils away as an office clerk. Stuck in grubby mid-19th century Paris, Thérèse works as an anonymous shop girl, obeys her mother-in-law’s commands and just about gives up trying to interest her asexual hubby in various sins of the flesh.
As the years pass, Thérèse becomes a bubbling cauldron of repressed passion. She’s got an itch that some pasty-faced file clerk just can’t scratch. One lucky day, however, Camille’s old friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac, hot off his star turn in Inside Llewyn Davis) shows up. Laurent is a bohemian artist who paints ’em like he sees ‘em. Thérèse is instantly smitten, and Laurent spots her desperate need for some good, good lovin’. The two immediately launch into a clandestine affair and start banging away a Neal Peart drum solo. As their affair deepens and gets more intense, Thérèse and Laurent start thinking that maybe life would be a hell of a lot easier without Camille in the picture.
The plot for In Secret is a simple, rather predictable one. It follows Zola’s “bad things happen to bad people” story to a T, providing few surprises for anyone who’s read a book in the last century and a half. In his introduction to the original publication, Zola said his goal was to study “temperaments not characters.” This slightly cold-blooded psychological approach was rather groundbreaking at the time and is mirrored in crime novels and films of the mid-20th century. Dress the characters in different costumes and the film would be a fitting (if lesser) companion for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
Stratton, who guest-starred in a few TV series and ended up directing one or two, does a credible job handling his first feature. Shot in Hungary and Serbia, the film is gorgeous in a dark and brooding way—all coal-colored streets and candlelit chambers. He also has the good sense to surround himself with a topflight cast. Olsen has yet to turn in a poor performance since her showy debut in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she more than holds her own against Lange and Isaac. If only the final product had pushed past the slow-burn sensuality and matter-of-fact murderousness. If our main character’s passion had leaked into the rest of the story a wee bit more, we might get a hint of the scandalousness that Zola originally intended. Instead we get a dark and dirty episode of “Masterpiece Theater” that, for all its (too clothed) sex and (too tidy) death, is a tad stuffy.