by Matt Levine
Bad movies can take on many different forms—the inflated message movie, the insipid special-effects extravaganza, the infantile gross-out comedy, the interesting failure—but maybe the most depressing variation is the film that doesn’t seem to have a reason for existing. Movies provide many pleasures, of course, from aesthetic virtuosity to compelling storytelling to satisfying genre manipulation; yet it takes a certain kind of mediocrity to fail on every front, instilling the one response worse than indignation—total emptiness.
Take In Secret, a film as lazily generic as its title (which was switched from its original moniker, Thérèse). An adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, which has been sapped of its unflinching naturalism (the cruelest injustice to dead authors must be the association of their name with nonsense like this), In Secret clumsily retreads a story of repression, lust, obsession, and murder. These sound like the makings of good cinema, and one can imagine a capable director making something heated, intense, and engaging out of the plot essentials. But Charlie Stratton, making his feature film debut, isn’t yet up to the challenge; he seems to willfully delude himself into believing that audiences haven’t seen the same tripe hundreds of times before.
Director: Charlie Stratton
Producers: William Horberg, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon
Writers: Charlie Stratton, Neal Bell (play), Émile Zola (novel Thérèse Raquin)
Cinematographer: Florian Hoffmeister
Editors: Celia Haining, Leslie Jones, Paul Tothill
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Shirley Henderson, Matt Lucas, Mackenzie Crook, John Kavanagh
Premiere: September 7, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 21, 2014
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
After a perfunctory opening scene in which young Thérèse is left with her despotic aunt and sickly cousin Camille after the death of her mother, the film abruptly flashes forward ten years. A 21-year-old Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen), doe-eyed and eager to experience the world, has been shuffled into her gilded cage: married off to the sniveling, consumptive Camille (Tom Felton, best known to audiences as Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies) and still under the watchful eye of her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), Thérèse longs for the sexual awakening that’s unavailable to her. Camille is more interested in placating his overbearing mother and climbing the corporate ladder at his new Parisian job, leaving a stifled Thérèse to dream of escape. It arrives in the form of Laurent (Oscar Isaac), a bohemian artist and childhood friend of Camille’s who spends his days cavalierly drinking and womanizing—at least until he meets Thérèse. Lust’s gravitational pull proves too strong, leading Thérèse and Laurent to indulge in a series of afternoon delights that are all Cinemax heavy-breathing and very little genuine emotion.
Of course their obsession leads to a murder plot: it is Thérèse who first concocts the “accidental” death of Camille on a placid boating trip, whereby the only obstacle to their everlasting union will be eliminated. Yet, in the manner of a post-Napoleonic Fatal Attraction, their unbridled passions come back to haunt them: following Camille’s death, his wispy apparition appears to Thérèse and Laurent at the most inopportune times, hilariously cropping up in the background with clammy makeup that might have been more at home on Lord Voldemort. The moral of the story is, don’t succumb to lustful temptation; or, if you do, don’t kill your cuckold on a boating trip where only you and your paramour are present.
Even though the Raquin family is good friends with a renowned police detective and his murder-obsessed son, this investigative pair is apparently too obtuse to doubt the suspicious circumstances of Camille’s death, chalking it up to a random drowning. (Indeed, Camille is so inept that they almost seem surprised he didn’t fall prey to an accidental death sooner.) Yet as soon as Camille is gone, all hope and passion oozes out of Thérèse and Laurent’s affair; they come to detest each other, reviling the baseness they delusively think the other has spawned in them, until they plot to kill each other and achieve what they’ve longed for the whole time—escape. What’s more, Madame Raquin, seemingly besieged by grief, suffers a stroke that paralyzes most of her body—because what costume-melodrama would be complete without a hysterical invalid scrawling out incriminations with spilled ink? Jessica Lange, fresh off the career revitalization provided by American Horror Story, dreadfully overplays the frantic blinking her character is required to perform, but it’s not her fault; she plays entirely at the movie’s level, pitched awkwardly between dreary seriousness and unwitting camp.
Hypothetically, the sordid territory into which In Secret ventures might have been laudable; while Thérèse and Laurent’s affair begins as tempestuous and erotic, it very quickly devolves into venomous hatred, ostensibly contemplating the desperation and vindictiveness that constitute the dark side of human love. Zola’s novel unapologetically depicted what it labeled “human brutes,” and a better adaptation might have addressed some of their volatile emotions. But there is no life or creativity, no sincerity or believability in the doomed romance we see here; there are only the plot machinations of a contrived erotic thriller which is neither erotic nor thrilling.
Although this is supposedly a story of repression leading to destructive self-liberation, there is something ultimately repressive in the otherworldly tortures heaped upon Thérèse and Laurent: it’s as though God himself has deigned to prove to them the error of their ways, Old Testament-style. But the sexual conservatism of a bygone era isn’t the most offensive thing about In Secret; what’s most frustrating of all is the movie’s timidity, its absolute refusal to make anything fiery or provocative or unsettling out of the mundane longings and retributions we see here. The lack of anything controversial is what’s most off-putting about the movie, as this story requires a ferocity of emotion that at least makes the audience feel something.
As it is, the audience feels trapped and fatigued by the end of the movie, which strands its characters in an unrelenting gray pallor and a tedious studio-bound set that rarely roams beyond a single dingy street corner. True, one of the novel’s original themes is imprisonment, but the constrictive banality instilled by In Secret hardly seems intentional. The film wants to be a serious examination of obsession and desperation, but it has such a feeble grasp of human behavior that its tumultuousness can only come off as inane and campy (though without a sublime ridiculousness to make it absurdly entertaining). By the time a filthy-drunk Laurent stumbles into a seedy bar/whorehouse and encounters Thérèse sexually enticing a gang of repugnant lechers, all we can do is roll our eyes; there’s nothing shocking or heartrending about such over-the-top misery.
To the scant extent that the movie works, it’s because of a cast that deserves better than this. In her feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Elizabeth Olsen conveyed a feral vulnerability that elevated the film to levels of near-greatness; but since then, she’s never had a role that has utilized her talent. In her thankless performance here, Olsen exudes fervor and longing as Thérèse, but the character’s eventual downfall into abject hopelessness is completely phony—there’s little the actress can do to salvage a character that has become a caricature. As the roguish lothario Laurent, Oscar Isaac can only smolder and glower, but his natural charisma is at least enough to convey the irrepressible passion of their lust. With this and Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac is becoming adept at playing morose starving artists, but at least in the Coen Brothers’ film there was something relatable about his gloominess; here, it’s only a generic character type, without a trace of dynamism to suggest a complex human personality. Even so, the two characters’ early rendezvous carry a desperate eroticism, stifled though it may be by the increasingly rote storyline. A surprisingly impressive supporting cast also attempts (half-successfully) to lend drama to the proceedings, especially the always-reliable Shirley Henderson (though her character is subject to a dead-end subplot that should have been excised entirely).
With lifeless visuals, inane characters, a preposterous and predictable story, and themes that are bellowed to the rafters with grating obviousness, In Secret can only plod through its familiar story until it reaches its dreary, inevitable end. The audience will surely be left wondering what the movie has to offer—neither sexy nor suspenseful, with a depressing modicum of believability, the film can’t even provide the simple genre pleasures that its overripe story suggests. Yet the fact that the movie was green-lit and ushered into existence might be even more inexplicable. What did the producers think such a drab and pedestrian film could offer? While a preponderance of innovative ideas wait in the wings of production houses, floundering in stasis until they receive elusive funding, we’re treated to yet another film that obligatory connects the dots that have been charted countless times beforehand. Now that’s repression.