In Secret combines a costume drama with film noir, although that’s not immediately apparent. Working from a novel by Emile Zola, writer/director Charlie Stratton takes his time to develop his tightly-knit group of characters. The economy of characters means there are only a handful of possible outcomes, so Stratton instead focuses on tone, which veers from lustful to foreboding. It is not thrilling, exactly, even if Stratton includes several Hitchcockian elements into his work. Instead, In Secret is a slow-burn look at what happens when ordinary people abandon their morality.
There is a brusque prologue where Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes the ward of her aunt Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange). Madame lives simply in the French countryside with her son Camille (Tom Felton), who has some kind of respiratory affliction. Camille and Therese share a bed through adulthood, and there is no affection between them. When Madame announces Therese will marry Camille – there is no discussion of the matter – she’s understandably alarmed. She does what she’s told since she has no alternative, but then Therese meets Laurent (Oscar Isaac), Camille’s childhood friend. Whereas Camille is a cold fish with a breathing problem, Laurent oozes sex and sophistication. It does not take long for him and Therese to begin a lurid affair.
Stratton hints at Therese’s dormant sexuality early. There’s a scene where she stares at bulky farmer who’s working the land with a scythe, and Therese writhes on the ground as if she’s about to burst. This scene seems excessive at first, yet it’s necessary since the sexual bond between her and Laurent develops wordlessly. Their trysts are lurid and playful: at one point he literally hides under her dress and goes down on her while Madame asks about chores. Of course, the playfulness between lovers gives way to tension. They want constant happiness and to share a bed, which is where Stratton shifts into darker territory. It is inevitable that they conspire to dispatch Camille, and the aftermath is way worse than their transgression.
The gnawing relationship between Lauren and Therese is nothing new. From Double Indemnity to I Know What You Did Last Summer, filmmakers understand how to wring tension from people who share a dark secret. What differentiates this material, however, is how the characters are more self-aware about their descent into hell. While Laurent tries to maintain the veneer of happiness, Therese (correctly) realize their relationship is tainted forever. Her life has no joy, so she seethes at Laurent’s pitiful attempt to salvage what they have. I’m sure Stratton would agree the moralizing is thinly-veiled, yet it’s biting because it exposes the horrible consequences of a loveless marriage. When Laurent and Therese snipe at each other, there’s the sense that’s all they have left.
In Secret has modest production design and only a handful of sets, yet Stratton uses them to his advantage. From the early shots of Madame’s home onward, there is a claustrophobic feeling. The cinematography drains the frame of any light, so it looks like darkness is about to envelop the characters. The editing gets tighter as the film continues, which stifles the opportunity for anyone to breathe. The performances are forceful and the cast wisely resists the urge to go over the top. Lange has the most demanding performance, physically and emotionally, and she (mostly) avoids the histrionics of her turn in American Horror Story. There is not much chemistry between Olsen and Isaac, so Stratton again uses this to his advantage. Laurent and Therese are not in love; they’re just sexually frustrated, and the aftermath is what binds them.
It does not matter that everything in In Secret is derivative. Stratton and his cast commit themselves to a story that suggests the possibility of happiness, only to drain it away slowly. There are layers of frustrations, to the point where Therese finally is aware of the dark irony of her situation. Her last scenes with Laurent are full of proverbial truth bombs, only Laurent is not as quick to descend to her level. By the end, In Secret left me thankful I do not live in a society wit antiquated ideas of sex, marriage, and womanhood. This is not the sort of movie that leaves its audience with a warm fuzzy feeling. Instead, it’s like Stratton takes the idealism of Victorian love and drowns it in a lake.