In Secret

Desire—especially in the 19th-century novel—is never simple. Complicated by rigid social mores, relationships are rarely bilateral, and passion is frequently paired with deceit. Emile Zola’s scandal-rich 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin is no exception. Adapted for the theater by Zola himself in 1873, the story has seen many reincarnations on both stage and screen, the latest of which is Charlie Stratton’s debut feature, In Secret. In spite of the rather trite title and a hazy poster image that resembles a harlequin romance cover, In Secret imbues Zola’s dark tale of love, lust, and murder in the lower echelons of Paris with modern-day appeal in large part thanks to its stellar principal cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange, and Oscar Isaac.

Left in the care of her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (Lange), when she’s a mere child, Thérèse (Olsen) is married off to her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton) the minute she comes of age. As Madame reminds her, Thérèse is an “illegitimate”: having no fortune or traceable maternal bloodline, she’s a social leper who should be grateful Camille is willing to take her. A severe asthmatic with peaked green complexion, Camille offers little stimulation between the sheets, so when the family moves from the countryside to Paris, Thérèse is easily tempted into a torrid affair with her husband’s co-worker, Laurent (Isaac). Oozing pheromones from his every pore, Laurent is pure machismo in muttonchops: his scent alone is enough to drive Thérèse into a dizzy spell.

Laurent awakens a passion in Thérèse she was hitherto unaware she was capable of. From the first time he instructs her to unbutton her blouse, waistcoats and petticoats are shed with impressive rapidity and frequency as the two can scarcely keep their hands off each other. For the first time in her life, Thérèse feels free, but her temporary bliss quickly gives way to the realization that Laurent has come to her rescue too late: she will forever be imprisoned by her marriage.

This theme of captivity is paralleled—perhaps a little too neatly—by a caged black bear Camille regularly visits at the Paris zoo. When a visitor throws bread and honey into its cage, the food gets stuck to the fur on its back; driven to madness, the bear tears away at its own flesh. “She could smell the honey, but she couldn’t reach it,” Camille explains to Laurent one day. It’s the kind of device that works well on the page but feels a bit heavy-handed on screen. Still, the point is well taken: the only viable solution Laurent can see to save Thérèse from the bear’s fate is to rid their love of its primary obstacle.

In Secret Elizabeth Olsen

With that, the film steps out of Madame Bovary territory and into the darker neighborhood of Crime and Punishment, as the story’s second half explores the many ways passion can be poisoned by guilt. Portrayed through a color palette that evokes Picasso’s Blue Period, the drama fittingly unfolds in the shadows of dank interiors—dark bedrooms, dimly lit corridors, and the claustrophobic parlor in the back of the fabric shop where Madame hosts her weekly domino games.

Like any adaptation, the film glosses over some of the finer details of the novel, but it preserves the author’s moral ambiguity towards his characters. All of them come across as reprehensible in some way, as each can be blamed for the other’s misfortune. It’s precisely this shifting of allegiances that propels the film forward: like matter itself, the love triangle at the film’s center cannot be created nor destroyed, but only change forms.

The film’s strength depends more on the A-list cast than on the workings of the script. Olsen has no trouble carrying the film with her captivating presence, her big green eyes showcasing an impressive range of emotion as Thérèse undergoes a complete metamorphosis. Lange eludes the element of caricature written into her character, maintaining a looming presence that shifts from despicable to sympathetic and back again, while Isaac’s base charisma gives his character a deft shove from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. As the one-dimensional Camille, Felton is given the least to work with—he’s more of a foil than a full character. But he moves past his sneering Draco Malfoy in The Harry Potter franchise to portray Camille’s irritating naiveté with great efficacy. 

In Secret Tom Felton

The leads are backed up by an impeccably cast foursome of domino players, to whom the film keeps returning: Shirley Henderson, John Kavanagh, Mackenzie Crook, and a toned-down Matt Lucas. Intended by the director as a “misguided Greek chorus,” Madame’s gossipy group provide one of the film’s chief delights. Oscillating between suspicion and cluelessness, they imbue the drama with both added tension and a much-needed dose of black humor—even if their morbid conversations occasionally foreshadow the film’s plot to within an inch of its life.

Although the film dips its toe in a number of themes—the social inequities of class and gender, attraction, mortality, money—they all feed into the story’s exploration of our most primitive drives. Desire, as it turns out, can be nasty, brutish, and short.