We keep coming back to "Therese Raquin" for the same reason Emile Zola's 1867 novel of adultery and murder, which ascribed its anti-heroine's amorality to her "hot" African blood, stirred the imaginations of Theodore Dreiser ("An American Tragedy"), James M. Cain ("The Postman Always Rings Twice") and a thousand other creative voyeurs with access to a printing press. Sex sells. It hooks us as partakers in someone else's fantasy of desire and comeuppance. We want to know what happens once the guards are lowered and the clothes come off and transgressions feed other transgressions.
The new and dully titled film "In Secret" comes from a first-time feature director, Charlie Stratton. His script credits Zola's novel along with another source, the 1990s Neal Bell stage adaptation of "Therese Raquin" that enjoyed some circulation on U.S. regional stages.
His cast for this modestly budgeted period picture, set in Paris and the French countryside, is led by Elizabeth Olsen as Therese, abandoned by her father at a young age, raised in provincial anonymity by her aunt (Jessica Lange). Therese's sickly and naive cousin Camille (Tom Felton) becomes Therese's husband in a marriage of depressing expedience.
Husband, wife and husband's mother relocate to the dingiest flat in Paris, where one evening Camille brings home a friend from work: the bohemian sensualist Laurent, played here by Oscar Isaac of "Inside Llewyn Davis." One look at this guy and Therese, dying of sexual thirst in a desert of a marriage, is a goner. Then, in another way, so is Camille, once Laurent and Therese work up the nerve to kill him off and live with the consequences.
Isaac's the chief point of interest in this solid if workmanlike movie, which, like Bell's play, has a punchy rhythm in its dialogue and a strong interest in the ways of all flesh. (At one point Laurent is hiding beneath Therese's skirts, sexually pleasuring her while Lange's brittle character is fussing about.) Stratton made the film in Belgrade and Budapest. The cast, comprising mostly Americans and Brits, speaks in a lightly worn array of English dialects signifying the roster of French characters. Isaac's sly delineation of the charismatic Laurent provides the through-line. Olsen is pretty good, too, though with her bald-faced, moon-eyed disdain for everyone around her, the material loses some of its tension between repressed surface and roiling underbelly.
The Gabriel Yared musical score is pure generic sludge, which does the erotic frisson no favors. Anyway, it's impossible to scandalize 21st-century audiences the same way Zola's readers were shocked by "Therese Raquin." Zola wrote his novel shortly after Darwin's "Origin of Species" came out, and all the book's talk (excised from this and other versions) of "nerves" and bloodlines and "fatalities of the flesh" have a way of undermining what endures in the story.
As for Lange, she has some ripely melodramatic moments once her character gets nailed by a stroke and must suffer, mutely, as her former daughter-in-law becomes France's conniver-in-chief. Lange has such interesting and voluble emotion inside her as an actress. One only wishes she could go back in time and undo some of the apparent and, in a small way, tragic facial work that has rendered a veteran performer, now in her mid-60s, as something less than authentic.
"In Secret" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content and brief violent images)
Running time: 1:41