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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with IN SECRET, STRANGER BY THE LAKE and THE GIRLS IN THE BAND!!!

Published at: Feb. 21, 2014, 1:47 p.m. CST by Capone

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…


IN SECRET
In this adaptation of Emile Zola's novel "Thérèse Raquin" that would have felt right at home on an edition of "Masterpiece Theater," IN SECRET is a period piece set in 1860s France about a young girl Thérèse (played as a young woman by Elizabeth Olsen), who is abandoned by her father after her mother died at the provincial home of her overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her sickly son Camille (HARRY POTTER's Tom Felton as a grown up). Forced to essentially take care of her ill cousin his entire life (as well as share a bed with him, which might be grosser than his constant coughing and wheezing), Thérèse is eventually forced by her aunt to marry Camille, and three move to Paris where Camille has found a job and Madame Raquin opens up a dress shop where Thérèse must work and never leave.

Every frame of IN SECRET is overwhelmingly claustrophobic, from the narrow, dark streets of Paris where the dress shop is located to the shop itself and rooms above where the three live and can hear everything. Even psychologically, Thérèse's world has grown so small that she nearly combusts when other people come into their world, whether it be acquaintances (played by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Shirley Henderson and Matt Lucas) dropping by for a game of dominos, or Camille's old hometown friend and current co-worker, Laurent (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS' Oscar Isaac), who finds himself drawn to Thérèse almost instantly.

What I thought was going to be a story of forbidden, scandalous love between Thérèse and Laurent turns into something much more sinister and perilously twisted at about the halfway point. The balance of power shifts in the Raquin household, and Laurent's motives for seducing Thérèse are called into question. I don't want to give away anything important about the plot, but first-time feature director Charlie Stratton gives In Secret just the right amount of hot- and cold-running passions, leading to a few legitimately surprising turns in this nasty piece of work. Some may be turned off by the film's blanket of grimness, but I found it rather comforting to watching these superb actors dive into something so desperate.

If the film had one sizable flaw, it would be that I never bought the passion between Olsen and Isaac, but as the film plays out, I actually thought that worked to IN SECRET's advantage. But I've said too much. The film's most memorable performance might actually come from Felton, who plays the mama's boy fop with a certain exuberance that almost seems second nature. His terrible combover, waxy skin, and odd way of treating Thérèse (almost accidentally cruel) are sublime character traits that tell us a great deal about the way he was raised by his supremely protective mother.

There are a few questionable choices on display here (Why are all of the American actors playing French people with British accents but still occasionally dipping into the French language for some dialogue?), but I got drawn into this costume melodrama slowly but surely. IN SECRET is not a great film, but if you're done catching up on all of the Oscar nominees and are hungry for more, it just might do.


STRANGER BY THE LAKE
Winner of a couple of key prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is a haunting, sensual thriller that also has the distinction of being truly odd in its characterizations. Set on a rocky lakefront beach in the French countryside that doubles as a nude beach and cruising spot for gay men, the film centers on Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps), a younger, good-looking guy who develops a friendship with the seemingly straight older Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), who sits slightly distanced from the naked, tanned bodies and the nearby woods where a great deal of sex is happening. Henri says he's getting over the break up of a relationship with a woman and is simply there to look at the peaceful lake view, but it's clear that he's watching the activities of the nearby men.

Frank admits that he has a crush on one of the beach regulars, Michel (Christophe Paou), who looks like he's ripped right out of a Tom of Finland drawing, complete with porn star mustache, and is also often in the company of a jealous companion. But when the companion mysteriously vanishes, it doesn't take long for Frank to move in, with the dark, vaguely menacing Michel responding in kind.

I may be venturing into spoiler territory here, but writer-director Alain Guiraudie (THE KING OF ESCAPE, NO REST FOR THE BRAVE) lets us know fairly early on not only what happened to Michel's previous lover but who did it, so the STRANGER BY THE LAKE is less a mystery and more an exercise in tension as we wait to see what happens between Michel and Frank. An extra layer of suspense is added when a local detective makes it clear that one or both of them may be considered suspects. Yet, despite the dangerous cloud that now hovers over the location, men continue to arrive and have anonymous sex, something that confounds the police. And just how closely has the nearby Henri actually been watching the goings on nearby and how much does he know?

The title of the film could refer to any number of characters, and that makes it more intriguing. Stranger by the Lake seems to make a point at saying that sexual desire in some trumps even their own personal safety and pushes people to take risks they normally wouldn't. There's an implication that Frank suspects Michel of some wrongdoing and simply doesn't care because he's in some degree of love with him. The film's final few moments (mostly shot in almost pitch darkness) aren't as terrifying as they could have been, and I think that's by design. Frank is running for his life, and everyone's true nature is revealed. The film is a fascinating character study of how we respond to potentially lethal circumstances when we're distracted by lust and emotion.

Not all questions are answered, not all fates are certain, and I'm guessing not all audience members will be satisfied with the way STRANGER BY THE LAKE ends. But even that frustration feels like it's intentional, so deal with it, and use it as a jumping off point for discussion. It's a novel idea, I know.


THE GIRLS IN THE BAND
I can't help myself. I love music documentaries, especially ones about an aspect of music history I know almost nothing about. If you had asked me anything about women in jazz for the last 80 years or so, about the best I could come up with is the late, great pianist Marian McPartland, who is featured quite prominently in director Judy Chaikin's debut feature THE GIRLS IN THE BAND. Chronicling in great detail the long and often-undignified path the acceptance of female musicians in the jazz world, the film features some great footage and even more remarkable recordings from the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Clora Bryant, Roz Cron, Billie Rogers, Viola Smith, and even more modern players like Patrice Rushen (known more for her R&B hits).

All-female jazz bands were considering more of a novelty act in the '30s and '40s—key among them the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. But ever so slowly, individual players worked their way into bands dominated by men. The story is familiar, with the women having be be twice as good to get half the respect. Very often the women in male bands finally established respect by being great singers, composers and/or arrangers as well. But it was beyond difficult to women to find a place if all they wanted to do was play a horn, woodwind or percussion instrument (piano being the sometime exception). It didn't help that many of the early female greats were also African-American, and the limitations put on black women at the time certainly didn't make life any easier.

THE GIRLS IN THE BAND brings us up to the modern jazz age, where things are clearly better. I wasn't aware that bandleaders like Herbie Hancock often had women in his live shows in places of prominence and often had to deal with pissy male musicians who didn't approve. Seeing modern jazz festivals devoted solely to women is a step in the right direction, but the film doesn't make note of the fact that having women as part of a non-segregated festival might be more encouraging. Still, the music is extraordinary, the stories are often heartbreaking (some great players of the early jazz age simply quit because there was no work for women), and the history is exhaustively researched and beautifully laid out for us.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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