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Archive for February, 2015

In Secret (USA, 2013)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes very easily
Director
: Charlie Stratton
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Shirley Henderson
Plot: Set in 19th century France and adapted from Emile Zola’s novel “Therese Raquin”. A young woman is stuck in a sexually unfulfilling marriage to her cousin, which leads her into an affair.

About the film

I wanted to see this because of Tom Felton, so when I started watching it I did it with an attitude of argh, why isn’t Tom Felton in this more and it’s so stereotypical that the lover (who gets more screen time) has a latino look. That attitude didn’t work for long though because I soon discovered I liked Mr Latino Lover (aka Oscar Isaac) very much and that he not only suited the part, but the part itself was a bit more layered than it first seemed.

It’s a very female-centric film. The main character is Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) – a girl who once upon a time probably enjoyed a bit more freedom. But since then her father has left her in the care of a very domineering aunt.
Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) completely dominates the household. It’s hard to say which one of the children in her care, Therese or her own son – Camille (Tom Felton), has it worse. Therese is very clearly stifled and valued much less than Camille. But Camille’s sickly tendencies seem to be reason enough for Madame Raquin to restrict and watch his every move. In an early scene, Camille emerges into the garden without Madam Raquin knowing, and exclaims “I escaped”, sounding absolutely thrilled.

When Madam Raquin makes the decision that Therese and Camille are to be married, nobody asks Therese her opinion. Nor does she protest. But it’s also clear this was not the life she had hoped for. It’s not that she hates Camille, she even seems to have some affection for him. It’s just not really the romantic or sexual kind. And perhaps she could have even been happy without romance or real sexual attraction if Camille was a more skillful lover. For Therese sexuality is clearly important and what’s really nice is that the film never judges her for that.

I’m frequently annoyed with films for their portrayals of female sexuality. Sometimes films try to suggest a male character is a particularly good lover, but when I see what’s happening on-screen, I’m thinking “yeah, right”. There’s a tendency to show sex from a male point of view and assume the same sexual activities will be just as pleasurable for the woman, when that’s not necessarily true. In Secret is very refreshing in that sense. I truly believed that Laurent (Oscar Isaac), Therese’s lover, was good in bed. For one thing, the sex scenes have dialogue in which he asks her where best to touch her and they even talk to each other about stuff they’d like to do. Isn’t that cool? It’s bizarre how rarely that happens in movies. Also, this is only the second ever (non-pornographic) film I’ve seen that has a cunnilingus scene (it’s very much implied rather than shown, but still – it’s there!).
But the other very impressive thing about the sexual scenes is that in terms of what is actually shown, they’re quite tame (it’s a 15 certificate here in the UK) and yet very, very steamy. There’s practically no real nudity, but the dialogue, the performances and what gets implied… all of that makes it feel like a lot more than it actually is.

The second half of the film is where things get really interesting. Without spoiling too much (the trailer spoils that already anyway), Therese and Laurent get rid of Camille and get married, but this does not make them any happier – quite the contrary. On top of that Madame Raquin is immobilized after a stroke and Therese is now her main carer. Things get very emotionally twisted and sometimes downright perverse.
Laurent’s darker side comes out in more ways than one. His love for Therese is still there (sort of), but it is now obvious it wasn’t just love that made him want to marry her. There is a hint in the first half of the film that financial security is important to him, but it’s only in the second half that it becomes clear he might be willing to do some horrible things to get it. And now that he’s miserable with Therese and drinking too much, he’s not very nice to be around to say the least.
Therese no longer has any passion for Laurent left and perhaps not even any love. She’s no longer interested in any sexual relations with him. But they are both very sexual people – it’s what brought them together in the first place, so it’s not surprising they eventually have a chance meeting in a whorehouse. What did surprise me is that the meeting didn’t go the way I had expected, the film somehow avoids clichés. It’s a very interesting scene.

The two best things about this film are IMO the writing and the performances. The story is very beautifully structured and put together. Every bit of dialogue and every scene has its purpose and brings some kind of meaning to the whole. And the entire cast, even some of the really minor parts, are excellent.

Elizabeth Olsen was generally awesome, but what I liked the most about her performance was how you could see her character change when she was finally getting the sexual satisfaction she needed. There’s a beautiful scene between Therese and Laurent in which she says “You have no idea how much they’ve stolen from me” and I completely believed her – you could literally see her coming alive through the affair with Laurent. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off and also very crucial to the film. It would have changed the entire movie if she had not made this believable.

Oscar Isaac was a big discovery for me (I’m in a total Oscar Isaac phase now – watching lots of his other films, some of which I might review). He’s really expressive in the love scenes – which sounds pervy when I write it like that, but well, he is (and so is Elizabeth Olsen btw). There’s quite a few sexual scenes in the film, each of these is quite different with different emotional dynamics, but there’s something honest about all of them.
But the other thing that made him so interesting to watch is how he handles Laurent getting dark and sometimes downright abusive. He foreshadows it just enough in the first half to make it believable and perhaps most impressively I did believe that despite how nasty he became, he really did still love Therese and genuinely missed what they had before.

Tom Felton was really interesting – it’s a very different part for him. There are moments in this when he’s very endearing, which is not usually the kind of vibe he gets to do. There’s nothing particularly dark about Camille (seeing as it’s Tom Felton playing him you’d think there would be, but no). His biggest fault really is ignorance and the feeling of superiority he has over Therese. Though despite this, he does care for her. He even realizes Therese is unhappy with him, but he’s completely clueless as to what to do about it (and asks who else but Laurent for advice). The “darkest” Camille moment, if you can call it that, is when he pulls the “I’m the man of the house so I get to decide” card on Therese. The scene is uncomfortable and even a little bit funny, but what’s so great about Tom Felton in it is that he really plays up how insecure Camille is about his masculinity. And oddly enough, as annoying as sexism is to me, in that scene I felt sorry for Camille – with Madame Raquin as a mother, what man wouldn’t be terribly insecure?
The contrast between Camille and Laurent is interesting in and of itself. Camille is a dependable husband and is never abusive, but there’s no doubt he’s sexist and never treats Therese as an equal. Laurent is never sexist (one of the things that so surprised me in the whorehouse scene was that I expected he’d pull the sexist card, but no) and he definitely sees Therese as a complete human being, but he’s also abusive.

Jessica Lange has in a sense the flashiest part and she’s very good in it. It’s the sort of role that can easily become hammy, but she didn’t fall down that route. There’s also a big challenge in the second half of the film when Madame Raquin is immobile after the stroke. The challenge is to somehow still exude that stifling presence, but without being able to speak and hardly being able to move. She pulls it off!

All in all this is a really great film and if this sounds interesting to you at all, I’d definitely recommend it.

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