Adapted from Emile Zola’s racy 1867 novel “Therese Raquin,” the film “In Secret” shares another bit of literary DNA: Edgar Allan Poe’s. Centering on an adulterous couple who do a really bad thing — in addition to the adultery, of course — the movie plays like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” There’s even a rotting corpse that crops up, if only in the guilty consciences of its protagonists, to torment them.
If you go in with the right attitude, there’s a fair amount of fun to be had from “In Secret,” considering it’s a musty French costume drama done in plummy English accents, as these things almost always are. That’s thanks mainly to our enduring fascination with the themes of lust, infidelity and murder. Whether it’s death by gun or by whacking someone over the head with an oar after they’ve been thrown out of a boat in the middle of the Seine, crimes of passion are perennial favorites of filmgoers.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Jessica Lange is in the movie, playing the stuffing out of her character, Madame Raquin, the nasty yet weirdly heroic aunt of Zola’s title character. Elizabeth Olsen might get top billing as Therese, but in first-time film director Charlie Stratton’s telling, it’s Auntie Dearest who steals the show.
That’s because Lange runs it from start to finish. It is, after all, Madame Raquin who gets the plot going by marrying off her orphaned niece Therese to her own sickly son, Camille (Tom Felton of the “Harry Potter” films). This forces the young woman into a passionless marriage. No good can come from the fact that the romantically inept Camille cluelessly brings home a handsome work friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), one day. This is a particular problem because Therese has been shown to possess a sexual appetite that’s a good deal healthier than her husband’s — not to mention a good deal healthier than the average hoop-skirted heroine of your typical 19th-century novel.
One unintentionally comical scene, early in the movie, shows Therese appearing to climax sexually as she grinds her hips into the grass while spying on a shirtless farm laborer. Look, Stratton seems to be telling us, in rather unsubtle fashion: A woman has needs.
Sure enough, those needs soon start to be met by Laurent. In an even more comical scene, we see Laurent crawl up under Therese’s skirts moments before Madame Raquin walks into her niece's room during one of the lovers’ lunchtime assignations. While under there, judging by the look on Therese’s face, it can be safely assumed that Laurent has found something to do.
It’s only a matter of time before things go seriously bad, with “In Secret” veering quickly into film noir territory. Though the more lurid aspects of Zola’s story scandalized readers in his day, they will be well familiar to anyone who has studied Hollywood’s pulpy black-and-white thrillers of the 1940s. When Stratton speaks of the “contemporary” quality of Zola’s novel, as he does in the film’s production notes, he really seems to be saying that it evokes femme-fatale murder mysteries from 70 years ago.
Fortunately, as the film gets more and more overwrought, Lange keeps getting better and better, even after her character has suffered a stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate to the world what she has come to learn about Therese and Laurent’s crimes.
Subtlety may not be this film’s strong suit, but it certainly is Lange’s.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual scenes, brief violence, disturbing images and mature thematic material. 107 minutes.