Wednesday, March 5, 2014

In Secret: Lovers in Hell

Oscar Isaac and Elizabeth Olsen in In Secret

The new film In Secret has had a limited release and drawn very little notice, but it’s tense and intelligent and beautifully acted. The only generic thing about it, really, is its title. The writer-director, Charlie Stratton, has based it on Émile Zola’s harrowing 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. Zola’s Thérèse is a young woman brought up by her aunt, who marries her off to her weak, fever-prone son Camille, whose bed the girl shared when they were children. Having relocated to Paris from the country to please Camille, they live above Mme. Raquin’s shop in a glum alley. Thérèse helps out behind the counter during the day; in the evenings she has nothing to do but cook dinner and take care of Camille when he comes home from his shipping-office job. The only distraction in her dull life is the games of dominos they play with some friends one night a week. Mme. Raquin is contented by this bourgeois existence, but Thérèse is so bored that she generally sits in defeated silence as the others play. Then one evening Camille brings one of his co-workers, Laurent – who knew the family as a boy in the provinces – home for supper. He’s an aspiring painter who speaks openly of the free-spirited world of the artist – of the women who model nude – as he executes Camille’s portrait (really a way of endearing himself to the Raquins so that he can enjoy their hospitality on a daily basis). And though at first his sensuality unsettles Thérèse and makes him dislikable to her, when she finds herself alone with him for an hour and he scoops her up in a kiss, she allows him to make her his mistress. The affair transforms her from a virtual sleepwalker to an alert, voracious young animal who finds it surprisingly easy to deceive both her husband and her mother-in-law. Eventually she and Laurent both grow impatient with the restrictions on their life together – especially Laurent, a soft, indolent character who gave up studying the law because he found it too rigorous and would like someone to take care of him so that he could quit his job and go back to the studio (out of laziness, not out of dedication to art). So he takes Thérèse and Camille rowing and drowns his friend while she watches, horrified yet paralyzed by the recognition that he’s acting on their mutual desire. Both the lovers believe that this murder will liberate them, but instead it dooms them: the image of Camille’s sodden corpse haunts their dreams when they’re apart and even after they marry – after a respectable mourning period, and with the blessing of the ignorant Mme. Raquin, who thinks of Laurent as a second son – they see that image in their bed like a ghost. It drives a stake between them and inevitably causes them to turn on each other.

You can see the genesis here of the James M. Cain novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, that became the cornerstones of the non-private eye subgenre of film noirs. But as much of a craftsman (and entertainer) as he is, Cain’s books are debased, i.e., melodramatic, versions of realist tragedies like Zola’s. Zola is the real thing, like Strindberg and (for American readers) Frank Norris. These men subscribe to the naturalist’s doctrine that human behavior arises from a combination of heredity, environment and the pressures of the moment, and so they had to turn themselves into master psychologists to render their characters fully plausible. What happens to Thérèse and Laurent after he drowns her husband and she colludes in the act by allowing it to happen before her eyes is as inevitable as what happens to Strindberg’s Miss Julie when she finds herself alone with the ambitious valet Jean on Midsummer’s Eve or to the three main characters in Norris’s McTeague, Trina and her two suitors, McTeague and Marcus, when sex and money arouse their base instincts. In the world of these authors, it doesn’t take much for women and men to get down to those instincts; civilization is the thinnest of veneers. The scenes Zola wrote for Laurent and Thérèse are so dramatic – they strip each other psychically bare, like Julie and Jean – that it’s no surprise that he turned his novel into a highly successful play a few years later, though In Secret is based on a second stage adaptation, by Neal Bell. (There was also a Broadway musical nearly a decade and a half ago, transposed to New Orleans; it had the unfortunate title Thou Shalt Not, and though it had its virtues – Susan Stroman’s choreography and performances by Norbert Leo Butz and Debra Monk in the two main supporting roles – it was misbegotten.)

The poetic filmmaker Marcel Carné, famous for Le Jour Se Lève and Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise, made a film of Thérèse Raquin in France in 1953 with Simone Signoret and Raf Vallone, but he wasn’t the right match for the material: he couldn’t resist romanticizing it, and in doing so he wound up turning it into melodrama. (The lovers are undone not by their guilt but by a twist of fate that seems purest James Cain.) The earthy, brooding Signoret is the only reason to look at it. But there was an excellent British TV version in 1980 with Brian Cox as Laurent and Kate Nelligan in a mesmerizing performance as Thérèse. Nelligan has been all but forgotten – I can’t remember the last time I saw her – but in the eighties and early nineties she could tear up the screen in movies like Eye of the Needle and Without a Trace and The Prince of Tides, and friends who saw her as Josie Hogan in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and as Virginia Woolf in Edna O’Brien’s Virginia had to reach for the right superlatives to describe her on stage. You can see her Thérèse on DVD, and it’s a hell of a thing: audaciously sexual, with glints of irony like daggers suddenly exposed in the moonlight and the slightly stylized presence, the gravitas and the facility with language, of a master stage technician. It may have been that larger-than-life quality that kept her from becoming a movie star; Hollywood didn’t have a clue what to do with that other great Josie Hogan, Colleen Dewhurst, either.

Elizabeth Olsen, who plays the role in In Secret, isn’t in Nelligan’s category, but she’s plenty good enough. I thought Olsen had some terrific scenes in Martha Marcy May Marlene, where she played a girl who tries to run away from a cult spearheaded by a profoundly creepy John Hawkes, but the writer-director, Sean Durkin, didn’t seem to have a clue how to shape her performance and she lacked the experience to figure it out by herself. She’s a few years older now, and besides Stratton knows what he’s doing. Olsen has huge, bulbous eyes that are sometimes hazel, sometimes gray, and always marvelously expressive, and God, can she hold a camera. Her flat voice is almost an emblem of a decidedly unromantic presence that might seem too contemporary for a period story – if it were almost any other period story. But Zola (again like Strindberg) was such a savage iconoclast that he still feels shockingly modern, and the casting of Olsen seems right to me. Stratton has thrown in a scene (before the family moves to Paris) where Thérèse masturbates on the grass while watching a barechested local wielding a hoe, but it isn’t necessary to explain that this girl has a fire in her belly that no one has ever stoked and that Camille (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter pictures) can’t get near: you look at Olsen and you understand instantly why marriage to her mamby-pamby cousin is such a wretched mistake. And the contrast of Felton, who has the delicate, semi-formed look of a young man whose fussing mother has treated him like an invalid all his life, and, as Laurent, Oscar Isaac, with his curly locks and broad sideburns, tells us exactly where she’s headed.

Isaac, who hasn’t received the acclaim he deserves for portraying the anti-hero of Inside Llewyn Davis, has a disreputable charm in the role, though once he’s made the first move, Thérèse becomes as sexually daring as he is. It’s she who challenges him to take her in her husband’s bed and hides him under her skirts when her mother-in-law walks into the room with tea for her and it’s clear to us that he’s going down on her. Stratton omits one development in Laurent’s character: in the book he’s sufficiently deepened by the guilt he feels over what he’s done – though Zola depicts it as more obsession than remorse – that when he returns to painting, he turns from a mediocrity into a genuine artist who can only, however, paint the same face over and over (Camille’s drowned one). But Davis makes good on all the requirements of part as Stratton has written it, and he has one really sinister moment, when Laurent finds out from Thérèse after the murder that the shop has always been in Mme. Raquin’s name, not Camille’s, and he urges her to grieve a little more flamboyantly for her drowned husband.

Tom Felton and Jessica Lange
It’s Jessica Lange, though, who gives the showpiece performance as Mme. Raquin. Lange is an impressionistic actress: she cobbles together her portrait of this woman out of hundreds of tiny details – glances, shifts, nuances. Mme. Raquin dances attendance on her son while he’s alive, and their giggling together and exchanging confidences infantilizes him; after he’s gone she dwells on his death in an almost fetishistic way, running images of him drowning over and over in her head, giving into her grief for him as she lived for him when he was alive. She’s drunk – staggering – with her agony over losing him. The movie gives her a dark moment that isn’t in Zola – in one scene she blames her daughter-in-law for failing to save her son, and for surviving when he didn’t – and it’s one of Lange’s most memorable scenes. It’s also a particularly brilliant piece of dramatic irony, because Mme. Raquin lashes out at Thérèse while knowing, or believing she knows, that she’s being unfair but just can’t help herself; we know that her accusations are precisely justified. When she finds out the truth and can’t do anything about it, Lange’s performance moves into a different, more horrified phrase. It’s wonderful to see Lange, one of our most remarkable actresses, in a big role that’s worthy of her talents.

This is a handsome movie: Florian Hoffmeister’s lighting sometimes recalls Manet and Degas, especially in the scene where Mme. Raquin first brings Camille and Thérèse through blue-black shadows to the shop she’s purchased. And I liked Gabriel Yared’s musical score. The movie does have its flaws. I appreciated Stratton’s idea not to show us the drowning of Camille in sequence but instead to bring it back in flashbacks; but he doesn’t pull off the first one, Thérèse’s nightmare. And he can’t figure out what do do with the Thursday-night dominos players, who are midway between Dickensian caricatures and naturalistic creations. Luckily one of them, Suzanne, the timid wife of the policeman Michaud (Matt Lucas, who’s the only actor I didn’t find convincing), is played by the English actress Shirley Henderson, a boon to any movie, who gives her the face of a wary doll whose mouth is pulled down at the corners as if by palsy. The last act, where Thérèse’s misery turns her into an absinthe drinker who picks up men in cafés, is a bit of a mess – and it’s the only section of Olsen’s performance I didn’t really buy – but by then the movie has worked up so much feeling that it’s not much of a problem.

Intrigued by the trailers and hopeful for the cast, I ran out to see In Secret when it opened at one of Boston’s art houses because I was fairly sure it wouldn’t hang around for very long. And though God knows we should all be used to the way worthy pictures get sidelined while audiences and critics’ groups go nuts for 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle and Her, I couldn’t help feeling an undercurrent of resentment in the midst of my pleasure. Here’s Jessica Lange giving a better performance than almost every actor who was nominated for an Academy Award this season, and how many aficionados of fine acting are going to happen across it? Of course great actors do what they do for themselves, because they’re artists, but it’s a pity that so much admirable work gets unceremoniously buried.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Along with The Immigrant, In Secret is without a doubt one of the sleepers of the year. I, too, feel a tinge of resentment at how little attention this film has received. It's refreshing to read a review by an intelligent, discerning critic (so few of them these days). I'm happy I stumbled upon this site. I loved the way in which Stratton visualized the young couple's guilt. It's the kind of formal experimentation that can be traced back to the German Expressionists of the '20s and is rarely put to use these days. Thérèse's visions of her dead, bedraggled husband still linger in my imagination. Guilt is an actual theme, unlike fate, which is more of a plot device.

    Thanks again for the great article!