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Therese: Toronto Review

Therese TIFF Still - H 2013
TIFF

The Bottom Line

Paris-set period piece offers sex but too little suspense.

Venue

Toronto International Film Festival, Special Presentation

Cast

Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac

Director

Charlie Stratton

Zola's novel of illicit sex and murder gets an unlikely cast and glum adaptation.

TORONTO — A proto-noir from the country that gave us the term, Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin offers lust and lies, murder and the bitter knowledge that the thing you want badly enough to kill for might be perfectly repulsive once it's yours. In a showy adaptation by first-time helmer Charlie Stratton, the story is more glum than seductive -- offering surprising sexual encounters, yes, but too little of the slow burn and psychological depth that might have made the Les Mis-meets-Jim Thompson concept get under one's skin. The cast and production values ensure a certain degree of attention in theaters, but word of mouth will be middling.

Elizabeth Olsen plays the title character, who as a child was (shades of the film's fellow Toronto entrant Belle) sent by a seafaring father to live with her aunt (Jessica Lange's Madame Raquin) after her mother's death. Growing up in isolation with only the aunt and her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton) as company, she is eventually forced to marry the sweaty boy and move with the two of them to Paris.

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In Paris, Olsen's Therese looks like a malnourished victim of Stockholm Syndrome: She sits at the edge of the room when visitors come over for a weekly game of dominoes, and is even more skittish when Camille brings home Laurent (Oscar Isaac), a handsome childhood friend who is clerking in the same office. She's revulsed, in fact: "Why are his hands so big?," she asks in a non-sequitur with obvious subtext. "I can smell him from here."

Soon Therese is doing more than smelling him. After establishing their mutual lust, the two have assignations every day at lunch: Laurent sneaks into Therese's upstairs bedroom while Madame Raquin cluelessly mans the fabric shop they run below. In one scene, Laurent is forced to hide -- under his lover's voluminous skirts -- when Madame makes an impromptu visit upstairs, hoping to help Therese endure the "migraines" that strike her every day at this hour. No young woman, let us hope, has ever moaned so suggestively while having her neck massaged by her mother-in-law.

Rather abruptly, the lovers decide to kill the man who stands between them. Though the foul act is almost derailed by a chance encounter with the dominoes-night gang, it proceeds, with the family friends backing up the tale of accidental drowning instead of casting doubt on it. (This won't be the last time the friends make things easier instead of harder for the couple.)

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After a period of mourning, Therese and Laurent marry, but now they're stuck with Camille's mother in the house -- and, more importantly, with the guilt of what they've done, which haunts them individually and makes them view each other with increasing contempt.

The domestic scene grows increasingly Gothic, with Lange, whose character winds up paralyzed, eventually getting to dominate tense scenes in a way that calls to mind the wheelchair-bound Hector Salamanca in Breaking Bad. A few close calls, though, don't make up for the overall sourness of the film, nor the fact that the completely American and British cast hardly transports us to 19th century Paris. A scene of misbehaving, guilt-addled Therese swilling a green liquid -- hey, that's absinthe! -- seems thrown in just to compensate for all the Anglo accents.

Production Companies: Liddell Entertainment, Wonderful Films
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Shirley Henderson, Matt Lucas, Mackenzie Crook, John Kavanagh
Director-Screenwriter: Charlie Stratton
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, William Horberg
Executive producers: Charlie Stratton, Richard Sharkey, Jennifer Monroe
Director of photography: Florian Hoffmeister
Production designer: Uli Hanisch
Music: Gabriel Yared
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editors: Paul Tothill, Celia Haining, Leslie Jones
Sales: LD Entertainment
No rating, 102 minutes