Almost a pop history of Western culture's relationship to female orgasm, Charlie Stratton's In Secret is a spirited zip through Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin, a sex-and-sin morality tale of the sort that has been the template for the last decade of Woody Allen dramas. Unlike those, In Secret boasts vigor and thematic richness, that feeling of artists expressing something vital rather than just banging out that year's script from the drawer.
That's especially true in the first half, which digs into ennui dating back to the dawn of monogamy: In 1860s Paris, a young woman gets impressed into marriage with a dope (Tom Felton) who, when he actually bothers to take her to bed, goes at her with the dull passion he might apply to eating oatmeal. Downstairs, meanwhile, that dope's mother (played with magnificent dudgeon by Jessica Lange) tends the family's fabric shop, the daughter-in-law, to her mind, just another needle to be threaded.
Since Thérèse, that daughter-in-law, is played by Elizabeth Olsen, whose eyes hunger like no one else's in film these days, we know this cannot last, especially once Thérèse makes the acquaintance of a well-sculpted painter played by Oscar Isaac. His sharply cropped mutton chops bristle with something uncouth just held in check — you could sand a board against them. Between those, his superheroic jaw and the mighty snugness of his breeches, Thérèse at last has an object for her wanting, one as potent as her hunger itself. Isaac's Laurent may not be exactly what she needs as a person, but, good Lord, will he do as a lover.
And he does. Much sooner then you might expect, these two have tumbled into bed, where they conjugate each other like gloriously dirty verbs. (The sex is less explicit than pay-cable dramas, but it is more agreeable, more feeling, about moments created between people rather than breasts directed at the camera.) Color floods Olsen's pale face; she's like a bud blooming open. She's pertly hilarious in the scenes where she has to hide her new glow — and her lover — from the mother-in-law: Laurent, beneath her cascade of skirts, goes down on her while the mother-in-law's in the room, evidence that even the hoariest of ribaldry can still win real laughs.
Thérèse's awakening is joyous, but it's also ripe with tension, and not just because this is an adultery story. Her pleasure is at odds with the entire society around her; even if Laurent were her husband it would be something to stamp down. As they couple — and enjoy some awkward evenings with the dope husband, a friend of Laurent's — no audience member could ever think this isn't going to lead to doom. It's mildly dispiriting that the doom that comes is potboiler stuff, a gender reversal of the usual A Place in the Sun/An American Tragedy/Match Point/Crimes and Misdemeanors method of collapsing a love triangle into a simple two-point line. (I know that isn't at all fair to Zola, who got there first. Maybe this is a pre-versal?)
It's a relief, though, that Stratton, who wrote and directed, threads a complex needle of his own: He makes Thérèse's passion feel like some birthright she's claimed despite the world's denying it to her — and does everything he can to make it feel as if the grisly steps that she and Laurent then take are not the natural consequence of such lustiness. That's tricky but welcome. Yes, she liberates herself, growing from a person who savors and initiates sex, but the movie suggests that's not the only reason she gets embroiled in the Law & Order: Squalid Paris plotting of the film's last act. Instead, it's the laws of marriage, the limited freedoms allowed to women and the fact that she and Laurent are a couple of great-looking assholes.
That last third veers into delicious hysterics. Lange's dowdy matriarch suspects Thérèse has done something awful, giving her the chance to wail and gnash and snack upon the scenery. Later, the mother-in-law loses her ability to speak, and in alternately comic and harrowing scenes she tries to catch the attention of the authorities in any way she can. Lange threads her own demanding needle: Over the film's 100 minutes, as the lovers come together and then come apart, she goes from plot-driving monster to something like a sympathetic fury. Her performance risks camp, and offers some of camp's joys, yet it always feels true. Like Thérèse, this woman doesn't have much to live for in a man's world, but she finds one thing worth feeling and goes all in. And like Stratton's accomplished and hugely entertaining movie, she's somehow silly and momentous at the same time.