That Émile Zola was no barrel of laughs, and aside from some needed black humor, director/screenwriter Charlie Stratton doesn’t do much to lighten up the French novelist’s nihilistic naturalism in this adaptation (by way of Neal Bell’s stage version) of the still-shocking 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin.” It begins with the injustices of “Jane Eyre,” segues into “Madame Bovary” and “Ethan Frome,” and ends up with the guilt and despair of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (Zola’s book clearly had an impact on James M. Cain’s noir classic, not to mention Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”). Deviants pay a steep price in this tale of repression, desire, recrimination, vengeance, and remorse.
It begins innocently enough, with young, doe-eyed Thérèse (Lily Laight) dumped off by her recently widowed dad at the ramshackle country home of his sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her sickly son Camille (played as an adult by Tom Felton). Thérèse’s aunt doesn’t lose any love over the new addition, and sleeping can be tough in the same bed as her constantly coughing cousin, but a quick cut to several years later shows the older Thérèse (played by a doe-eyed Elizabeth Olsen) adjusting to her rustic surroundings, occasionally running off to watch one of the bare-chested, sweating reapers in action and pleasuring herself by rubbing against the ground. Talk about being earthy.
Such idylls never last. The pampered, pasty-faced Camille decides he wants to work as a clerk in Paris. Madame agrees if she can open a shop, and everyone is happy. Except Thérèse; nobody asks her what she wants, and it certainly isn’t being forced into a marriage with her repugnant noodle of a cousin.
The new Madame Raquin might not have fun in Paris, but Stratton does, especially with the crew o
f bourgeois freaks who come to the Raquin salon on Thursday nights to play dominoes. The laughs are cheap, and welcome. But then the swarthy, failed-bohemian-painter-turned-clerk Laurent (Oscar Isaac, from “Inside Llewyn Davis”) joins the group, and the way Thérèse looks at him indicates that she won’t have to rub against the ground anymore.
That’s the key to this movie — the way Thérèse looks at things; it’s a rare film that focuses on a woman actually looking and how she responds to what she sees (I won’t trouble you with cinema theories about “the male gaze”). Olsen’s face mirrors all that’s happening within, and she makes a convincing transition from mousy mope to ravenous adulteress.
Unfortunately, Stratton remains a bit too true to the source, with its sometimes facile symbolism, picturesque squalor, and righteous retribution posing as detached, scientific observation of the human condition. Scandalous in its day, “Thérèse Raquin” now seems more like a reaffirmation of the status quo, with punishment in store for the femme fatale temptress.