by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume In Secret
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange, Tom Felton and Oscar Isaac
Directed by Charlie Stratton
From Roadside Attractions
In Secret sent me careening backward through time to the tragic loser-hero Walter Neff, the star of Billy Wilder's intensely serious film noir Double Indemnity: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money — and a woman — and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty isn't it?"
Though it's far removed from James M. Cain's crime novel and the movie it spawned, In Secret pulses with their passionate energies. Where Double Indemnity was an insurance scam in 1940s Los Angeles, In Secret is a love affair in Victorian-era France. Its central figures suffer similar ailments: marriage has shrunk their worlds, and murder has imprisoned them in it..
In Secret opens in the 1850s with young Thérèse as her father abandons her with her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), who is not pleased with the addition to her sleepy farmhouse, where her only child has a rather serious lung ailment. Many years pass and the Madame marries Thérèse, now played by Elizabeth Olsen, to her cousin, the runtish, sickly Camille (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies), who seems unable to discern the features of a woman from those of a travel trunk. Poor kid, he just seems constantly aloof.
The three move to Paris to take work: the women in a linen shop they own and Camille in some kind of financial institution, where papers are shuffled from desk to desk with little else getting done. At work, Camille runs into a childhood friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), who is everything Camille is not, including handsome and unabashedly sexual. When Laurent visits the home on Thursday game night, Thérèse can only gasp and swoon. They begin a steamy affair that is difficult to keep hidden — in one episode Laurent hides under Thérèse's billowy skirt while the Madame skulks around her bedroom.
These affairs can never last, not without spilling over the edges of their own containment. Sure enough, Laurent hatches a plan that will forever destroy the balance of the house, their jobs and their love. Thérèse is mostly bullied into the scheme, aside from one moment of serious reflection that is interrupted by Camille, the boy who unknowingly sealed his fate with a missplaced joke.
The movie is the directorial debut for Charlie Stratton, who does a commendable job bringing the 1867 Émile Zola novel to the screen. The first and second acts are more solidly constructed than the third and final act, where the film staggers against the emotional weight that bears down on Thérèse. She has visions of dead bodies, she mopes around the house, sleeps in the store window and basically gives up on life. Much of the final act is spent dealing with Madame Raquin, who has had a stroke, her eyes trapped in a lifeless body.
The acting is superb all the way around. Isaac, fresh off Inside Llewyn Davis, is fantastic, as is Felton, who brings a boyish innocence to his tragic Camille. The movie really belongs to the women, though — Lange and Olsen are hypnotic in their tormented deliveries. Generations apart, the two actresses somehow occupy the same devastating groove within In Secret’s anguished turmoil. When they face off late in the film, Olsen lets defeat wash over her character’s face while Lange, frozen in place, lets her eyes fill with terror and hate.
I must also commend the cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister, who uses mostly natural light — or candle or fire light — to paint his images. Much of the film takes place in shadows, in sunless corridors and dimly lit parlors, where dominos are slapped on tables and lies are further manipulated onto unsuspecting witnesses. A scene early in the movie struck me as especially remarkable: Olsen sitting at a window, beams of sunlight shooting through in long horizontal bars and, back in the shadows, a bed with a sick boy stirring in the darkness. The movie holds the shot long enough for you to appreciate its composition.
If you’ll recall how Double Indemnity ended, then you’ll know some of the paths In Secret will be traveling. It’s not a pretty route. In fact, it’s terrifyingly dark and morose. But it’s an interesting period piece, one full of remarkable performances, finely detailed costumes, exquisite lighting and a finale that will suck the wind from your chest.