by George Sax
From its start, In Secret develops a sense of foreboding, and as this grows, it begins to mix with a current of frustrated erotic feeling. When this eroticism is finally given vent by Thérèse Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen), the movie’s chief protagonist, it is illicit because society allows no other way. The results of this outlaw sexual congress become a doomful human spiral.
This is to be expected since In Secret has been adapted by director Charlie Stratton from Emile Zola’s 1867 French novel Thérèse Raquin, the author’s severe novelistic scrutiny of that society and its adverse, sometimes tragic shaping of human destiny. For Zola, a famous proponent of artistic naturalism, the arcs of people’s lives are produced by a confluence of natural inclinations with social structures and pressures, and he sought to depict, in often sordid detail, the operation of these forces on his characters’ lives. Zola disdained what he regarded as the romantic illusions of much literature. The origins and disposition of Zola’s novel seemed to have confronted Stratton with problems he’s had only limited success in solving in his movie.
Thérèse is a victim from the earliest scene. Abandoned as a child to the care of her father’s sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), she grows up serving as a sort of domestic servant and “guardian angel” to her sickly male cousin Camille. She even shares a bed within a very oddly chaste relationship, one that turns incestuous (although perhaps not by 19th-century rural French standards) when she is virtually forced to marry Camille and move with mother and son to Paris. There she meets Laurent (Oscar Isaac, from Inside Llewyn Davis), a pleasure-seeking, unsuccessful painter with whom she becomes passionately and fatefully involved.
Stratton has furnished his picture with impressive production values. The sets and settings (the movie was made in Eastern Europe) are authentic-looking and the performances are earnest and skilled. But this last element has also had a perversely unhelpful effect. Several years ago, novelist Julian Barnes noted that a 2006 production of Zola’s stage version of his own novel had problematically fine performances that tended to underline the story’s lack of any sympathetic character. In Secret has a similar problem. Thérèse is no monster but she enters into a horrible bargain. Jessica Lange especially shows her performance chops, but though Madame’s fate is cruel, it’s hard to feel more than clinical empathy.
Since Stratton has had predictable difficulty conveying Zola’s class and psychological determinants in this necessarily simplified narrative, In Secret winds up grim and repellant, and with little dramatic satisfaction.
Watch the trailer for In Secret
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