Émile Zola is often cited by scholars more knowledgeable than myself as a master of naturalism. I have read Germinal, but that’s where my Zola experience ends, so while I can say that it was a naturist book, full of dusty horrors and casual misery (it was about the horrible conditions under which miners live), I cannot comment on his 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, the basis for Charlie Stratton’s recent film adaptation In Secret. I can say that In Secret (what a dull, perfunctory title) is a lugubriously lush and unabashedly melodramatic erotic thriller that feels less like classic naturalist literature than it does Harlequin Romance. Zola tended to take an objective view of his characters, depicting their behavior rather than commenting on it. Stratton takes the opposite tack, giving us an amoral hothouse of murder and deception. Which version you prefer perhaps depends on your temperament, but I can say that In Secret, while shooting for class, ends up in the dull pile of disposable sex romps.
Elizabeth Olsen plays Thérèse, a girl who is forced to live with her doting aunt (Jessica Lange) and her sickly cousin Camille. Camille is played by Tom Felton, perhaps best known for playing Harry Potter’s nemesis, who here proves himself to be an appealing actor, pulling out all the stops to be a weak, uninteresting, sniveling character. Felton may just be the world’s next Jonathan Pryce. Thérèse, meanwhile, has been having a rather intense sexual awakening, as depicted in a scene where she digs her fists into a glade of loam, and grinds her genitals into the ground while watching an unwitting nearby shirtless hunk mow the neighboring lawn with a scythe. I can’t tell if that’s sexy or stupid. When Thérèse is forced to marry Camille for financial reasons and move to the big city, what’s a girl to do but have an intense, not-so-discreet, highly sexualized affair with a local Bohemian artist (Oscar Isaac)? No points for guessing that the affair leads to crime, darkness, and heartbreak.
Indeed, the darknesses pile up on one another with such an alarming rate (Murders! Strokes! Secrets!), the tone of the entire film shifts from one of illicit sexual naughtiness to downright death-obsessed Gothic melodrama. The visuals are rich and vigorous, and the performances are dedicated and earthy (Olsen exhibits a natural on-screen ease and surprising sexiness that could be better suited to stronger material), but the overall tone is too trashy to be taken seriously. What should feel like a shocking examination of illicit lust and the depths thereof (as I’m sure the original novel was) ultimately feels more like an off-the-rack bodice-ripper.
If the thought of Oscar Isaac’s creamy, muscular thighs thrusting haughtily up under the skirts of a sex-hungry Elizabeth Olson stir your passions, then maybe In Secret will provide the thrill you seek. For those of us looking for something dramatic and engaging, the In Secret falls flat.