The story of Thérèse Raquin has been told more than a few times. Since Émile Zola’s eponymous novel was published in the late 1800s, the saga of adultery and murder has been adapted into several plays, no fewer than ten films, three separate television series, two operas, two radio productions, and even a Broadway musical. Suffice it to say that the tale has been written to death, no pun intended. But that didn’t stop director Charlie Stratton from bringing it back to the big screen with “In Secret,” in theaters Friday.
“In Secret” is certainly not the feel-good movie of the season. Thérèse’s saga is told here as a creepy, Shakespearean ghost story that occasionally veers into M. Night Shyamalan-esque territory with its eerie, watery dream sequences. In short, a young Thérèse Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) is abandoned by her father to live in the French countryside with her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her sickly, spoiled cousin Camille (Tom Felton). Thérèse and Camille marry once they are of age, and the three move to Paris, trapping a sexually repressed Thérèse in a back-alley Parisian shop with nothing more than Madame’s Thursday night games of dominoes to look forward to. Enter Laurent (Oscar Isaac), Camille’s old friend and coworker, and a steamy affair is born (they hardly spend 45 seconds alone together before her shirt hits the floor) that eventually drives the couple to murder Camille and spend the rest of the film dealing with the fallout.
“In Secret” is so oppressively dark and claustrophobic that leaving the theater feels like coming up for air after being held underwater. Once the characters migrate from the countryside to the city, sunlight practically ceases to exist, replaced by greenish shadows, wrought iron gates, and slimy cobblestones. Mangled by both heavy melodrama and exhausting gloom, the “City of Lights,” as portrayed here, is anything but.
True to the novel’s original intention (Zola explained that his goal was to “study temperaments and not characters”), “In Secret” is far from a psychological portrait. Despite all the emotions and interactions we witness over the film’s deceptively short 103 minutes, we don’t really know or understand any of the characters in this tangled web. However, this does not in any way imply that there is a single instance of unpredictability in any of their decisions or their consequences. Everyone is doomed from the beginning (I won’t spoil the ending, but “Shakespearean” should be a hint), and once Thérèse lays eyes on Laurent, the rest of the film is little but a documentation of how quickly and dramatically everything can deteriorate.
If there’s anything capable of dredging this film out of the Seine, it’s the acting. Both Olsen and Isaac bring their A-game, but of course it’s Jessica Lange, even after her character becomes paralyzed, who is the most fun to watch.
If you’re a huge fan of Lange, or if you happen to be a Thérèse Raquin scholar (plenty of material out there to keep you busy), then by all means, grab a seat. But as for the rest of you? I’d suggest a pass.
“In Secret” shows at the Landmark Sunshine Theater, 143 East Houston Street.