This haunting adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) has good performances from Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise). But it’s most remarkable as a pairing of two inspired actresses with four decades separating them: 25-year-old Elizabeth Olsen, the bewitching star of Martha Marcy May Marlene, and 64-year-old Jessica Lange, who made her screen debut in King Kong (1976) and for the next decade or so played the sort of smart, sexy blonds that are now Olsen’s specialty. In Secret gives them a chance to face off, though their characters share a loving bond at the outset; only at the very end does one realize they’ve been the central antagonists all along.
Her mother dead, her father off in Algeria, Thérèse (Olsen) grows up with her stifling aunt (Lange) and sickly cousin, Camille (Felton), whose mother dotes on him and whose relationship with Thérèse is so brotherly that they share the same bed well into adulthood. After Thérèse’s father dies, Madame Raquin decides that Camille and Thérese should marry, and soon afterward all three move from the country into a dank section of Paris where Madame has bought a fabric shop. But Thérèse wants more: in a scene concocted by writer-director Charlie Stratton, she lies on her stomach in a field one fine day, watching as a powerful man stripped to the waist swings a thresher off in the distance, and helplessly rubs her crotch against the ground. When Thérèse meets Laurent (Isaac), her husband’s dashing coworker, his frankly sexual gaze makes her weak in the knees, and we can see where this is going.
For once you can’t fault a filmmaker for sexing up the story, because Laurent and Thérèse’s steamy encounters are perfectly in keeping with Zola’s conception of them. “I have selected persons absolutely swayed by their nerves and blood, deprived of free will, impelled in every action of life, by the fatal lusts of the flesh,” he wrote in a preface to the novel. “Thérèse and Laurent are human brutes, nothing more. I have sought to follow these brutes, step by step, in the secret labour of their passions, in the impulsion of their instincts, in the cerebral disorder resulting from the excessive strain on their nerves.” The cerebral disorder accelerates when Laurent, a cunning and selfish man, hatches a plan for them to drown Camille and make it look like an accident so they can be together and inherit Madame’s money.
Olsen plays Thérèse as a vibrant, healthy woman who’s endured a cloistered existence for so long that she’s ready to burst out of her own clothes; by contrast, Lange’s Madame is so devoted to her son that she’s groomed Thérèse to become his spouse and second mother. “They have stifled me with their middle-class gentleness, and I can hardly understand how it is that there is still blood in my veins,” Thérèse declares in the novel. The tragedy of In Secret is that Thérèse’s indiscriminate passion leads her from one emotional prison right into another.