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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Something is familiar about this ‘Secret’

AMC River Park Square has already dropped "In Secret," which makes me wonder why the company's bookers ever even bother bringing arts movies to Spokane. Regardless, it may show up at the Magic Lantern or be made available through your On Demand service. Whatever, I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio. That review follows:

One of my favorite lines from the 1989 movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is uttered by a pompous character played by Alan Alda. When asked to define comedy, Alda’s character says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

Here’s what he means: Jokes made about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination the day after it happened just aren’t funny. But a century later? Well, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

A corollary can be applied to great literature. Take the French naturalist writer Emile Zola. When he was writing, during the second half of the 19th century, Europe’s emotional IQ was far more constrained than it is today. Thus when Zola’s 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin” was published, his study of two lovers – “human brutes,” as he called them in the preface to the book’s second edition – the result was pure scandal. Zola himself railed against the critics and their attempts to compare his work “to a pool of blood and more, to a sewer, to a mass of filth.”

You have to wonder what those same critics would say about some of the shocking images and references of the past four decades: a crucifix dipped in urine, George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” or the semi-nude gyrations of a Miley Cyrus. Times change, and tastes and attitudes change with them. What once seemed shocking now seems, to many of us at least, simply mundane. Even boring.

Which brings us to Charlie Stratton’s movie “In Secret,” the latest in a long series of attempts at adapting Zola’s novel. In fact, in one fashion or another, from film to stage play, musical to TV miniseries, “Thérèse Raquin” has never died. That’s probably because, whatever Zola’s original intent, the themes he explored also fit a simple formula: If comedy is tragedy plus time, then murder is repression plus lust. Zola’s characters, whom he describes as “a powerful man and an unsated woman,” allow what Zola terms their “animal” desires to commit an act of violence we’re all familiar with, whether through books and films such as “An American Tragedy” or “The Postman Aways Rings Twice” or your latest episode of the cable-TV show “Obsession: Dark Desires.”

Elizabeth Olsen plays Thérèse, a young woman forced by her domineering aunt to marry her sickly cousin, Camille. Sexually frustrated, Thérèse falls into an affair with her husband’s friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac of “Inside Llewyn Davis”). One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know Camille ends up face down in the river, the aunt is disabled by a stroke, and Thérèse and Laurent end up married. But things don’t progress happily for our two “brutes.” Lust soon turns to hate, and … well, it’s an old story, isn’t it? One that has fueled every noir ever written – or filmed.

And that’s the problem. “In Secret” – a forgettable title, by the way – is Stratton’s attempt to recapture Zola’s story and what he calls its “raw violence.” And to be fair, everything about the production – the cinematography, the set design, costuming, etc. – is expertly done, and the acting is serviceable – even given Jessica Lange’s hyperbolic turn as the aunt. Yet Stratton’s version just doesn’t add anything new to the mix.

“In Secret,” then, is an example of tedium being Zola plus time.