In Secret (2013)

I wrote before about the recent shuttering of both Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, and how neither one managed to survive the consequences of prolonged COVID-related shutdowns. In truth, both have been struggling for a while. When I was still living in Louisiana and only visiting Austin, there was a Vulcan Video location in North Austin near UT’s campus, complete with a giant mural of Spock, one block south from the apartment building where I would ultimately get my first place in Austin. One block west was the second location for I Luv Video on Guadalupe. By the end of my first year of residence, Vulcan had relocated their North location by about 25 blocks, and the I Luv Video on Guad posted a bunch of their DVDs and memorabilia for sale and consolidated with the main location on Airport Boulevard. It was at this sale that I found the Mrs. Winterbourne press packet that I wrote about when that was our Movie of the Month, lo these many years ago now. Most of the good horror had already been picked over, and what remained was risky. Jessica Lange had just left American Horror Story and I was hankering for some of that good Lange content when I stumbled across the DVD for In Secret, which featured her prominently on the cover. It was a fairly recent release (2013), too, and I figured I could risk the $4 and see if it would soothe my jonesing. But then, as these things often happen, I had to move and the DVD got stuffed into a box, and then put on a shelf for three years where it was occasionally discussed and then rejected as I could never quite sell my roommate on it. And then it went into another box, and then onto another shelf in another new place, where it’s sat for another year, until it took a trip with me to a cottage in the Texas Hill Country as part of my “emergency media” stash for my wi-fi free solo writing retreat (it’s going great, by the way). I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t live up to the hype. Spoiler alert for an Emile Zola novel that’s older than harnessed electricity.

In Secret is the very rote 19th century story of Thérèse, a young girl whose mother dies and leaves her in the care of her indigent explorer father, who immediately deposits the child with his own sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her chronically ill, possibly hypochondriac son Camille. Raquin is no wicked aunt/stepmother, but while she lacks ill intentions, she has an abundance of ideas of propriety and the natural progress of a life that are rigid in both structure and enforcement. In time, Thérèse grows up to be Elizabeth Olsen, and Camille grows up to be Tom Felton, and all the while the two are still forced to sleep in the same bed. When word arrives that Thérèse’s father, who has been gone for what must be at least eight years but feels like more, has died, Madame Raquin wastes no time in marrying the cousins to each other, which was the style at the time. She secures a job for Camille in Paris doing some kind of office work, and she opens a dress shop in a dingy alley with Thérèse as her assistant. Camille is soon reunited with Laurent (Oscar Isaacs), a childhood friend whose family relocated before Thérèse came to live with the Raquins, and his vivaciousness and bohemian nature capture Thérèse’s fancy, as her life is otherwise completely passionless and dictated by her aunt/mother-in-law.

The two soon begin a sordid, torrid affair, but when Camille decides to move the family back to their country home, their desperation to stay together pushes Thérèse and Laurent to kill Camille so that they can stay together in the city. While on a day trip in the park that culminates in renting a boat, they push him overboard before sinking the boat and framing the whole thing as an accident. While waiting what seems an appropriate amount of time before marrying one another, Laurent and Thérèse grow bitter and resentful of one another, and even after they have married, this hatred for one another continues to grow, especially once Madame Raquin suffers a stroke that leaves her largely paralyzed and requiring constant care, until they both seek desperate measures to extricate themselves from the circumstances.

This movie is … not very good. You know how, sometimes, you see that a movie was filmed in Serbia, and you’re like, “Oh, this movie was made specifically so that they would have something to show on buses for people traveling across Eastern Europe”? This is one of those films. This is, to date, the only feature helmed by director Charlie Stratton, who looks to have come up through the Hollywood ranks as an actor first, with sporadic one-off roles in TV series like L.A. Law, Thirtysomething, Dallas, and Matlock, with a major role on the Dirty Dancing television show, which apparently existed. From there, he’s mostly directed for television sporadically (Revenge, The Fosters, Chasing Life, Everwood), but the problem here isn’t one of direction (it’s competent), it’s one of story. This is a very 19th Century story, and it feels like it.

Certain narratives of that age can be endlessly reinvented or reinterpreted (say Bronte, Austen, Alcott), and this is a story penned by Émile Zola, who was nominated for both the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote it with the intent of examining the relationships between the four temperaments, with each of the characters representing one of them, and as such considered the narrative itself to be a foregone conclusion, as this was the only way the four archetypes could interact, and the tragic ending was a foregone conclusion. That’s fine for the era in which it was written and is even fine if one were to engage with that worldview/mindset and re-examine and reinvent the narrative. There’s nothing inventive or novel about this extremely faithful approach, and as such, it feels more like an outdated morality play than anything else. One may as well make a completely straightforward adaptation of Pamela if one isn’t going to engage with the text in a meaningful, transformative, inspective way.

Most contemporary criticism revolved around Lange’s performance, and she delivers a great one, as usual, as she wrings great drama out of the scenes in which she is trapped in her body and attempting to communicate to others that all is not as it seems. Felton is serviceable, and Olsen and Issacs deliver characteristically invested performances as well, but there’s only so much overwrought peak-Romanticism era histrionics that one can stand. The film’s more somber moments are undercut by an air of (one hopes) unintentional comedy, delivered mostly by the presence and performances of Matt Lucas, then best known for Little Britain, and Shirley Henderson as, respectively, Olivier and his wife Suzanne. Above and beyond the fact that no one, from Lange down, even attempted to portray a hint of Franconess in this very French story, these two Brits seem to be playing every scene in which they appear for humor, and although it’s tonally jarring, these few morsels manage to be the only moments of real entertainment that the film has. The scene in which Lange’s Raquin painfully attempts to tell her assembled friends that Laurent and Thérèse killed Camille by painstakingly drawing individual letters with her enfeebled hand, only to get out “Thérèse and Laurent” before exhausting herself, only for Olivier to declare that she must have been writing “Thérèse and Laurent are taking great care of me,” is camp of the highest order, and completely out of place in what is otherwise a dour and dreary film.

Matt Lucas should never be the saving grace of anything.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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