A Secret Review
There are any number of murky secrets and acts left unspoken of in France’s not so distant history that are now only gradually being confronted by the nation, its writers and filmmakers. It took an Austrian director, Michael Haneke to bring up shameful events in the country’s history with Algeria in Hidden (Caché), and it was a group of French filmmakers and actors of North African origin that forced the French government through Days Of Glory (Indigènes) to recognise the part played in the Second World War by Moroccan and Algerian volunteers, and correct the shoddy treatment that had been given to its war veterans. The 2005 film I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed also confronted its North African question in his account of the abduction and murder of the prominent Moroccan militant in 1965. Each of these films however had its own agenda and audience to play to, and neither Michael Haneke’s allusive, intellectualised approach, nor Rachid Bouchareb’s clichéd war-movie drama, nor Serge Le Péron’s glossy série noir fully provided an honest or meaningful account of their respective historical subjects. The experience of the French Jewish community during the Nazi occupation of the country is however perhaps the darkest secret in recent French history, but it’s one that director Claude Miller would seem to be well positioned to approach, coming from the same family background as the author Philippe Grimbert whose 2004 bestselling novel is adapted here, himself having experiencing the loss of close family and friends in the concentration camps.
Based on a true story and told from the perspective of the narrator as a grown man in 1985, François looks back on the period he discovered the hidden family secret, one that changes his whole outlook on his life. Weak, frail, shy and withdrawn as a child, François is constantly looking for protection and approval from his strong athletic father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) and his beautiful mother Tania (Cécile de France), a champion swimmer and diver, but he feels like he is a disappointment to both of them. In his dreams and fantasies he imagines the exotic lives these wonderful people must have led, and even conjures up an imaginary brother, strong, capable and athletic – everything he isn’t. The reality however is very different. He is aware of his father’s attempts to eradicate any trace of his Jewish ancestry, one that has even resulted in the changing of the family name, but the truth only comes to light when as an adolescent schoolboy he is made aware of the reality of those years through film footage showing the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation. A friend of the family, Louise (Julie Depardieu) reveals to him the story of a very different family from the one he knows, and their attempt to cross the Demarcation Line.
A Secret has a complicated time-line, opening in 1955, moving to 1965 when François becomes aware of his heritage and the events of the past, flitting then between the events of the war years and sequences in the modern-day present of 1985. Through a number of devices – the present day in black-and-white, certain actors only belonging to one specific period - Miller expertly guides the viewer through each era, managing on occasion to even flit between decades within the same camera shot, without there ever being any confusion to the time period we are within. This is a mark of the director’s strong, classical filmmaking approach towards structure, towards characterisation and performance, using period newsreels and newspaper headlines, foreshadowing events, contrasting past with present and the imaginary with the real through strong linking devices.
It’s all a little too neat however and too fluid for the upheaval of the reality of events of the period, taking a very safe, mainstream approach, particularly in the relating of events through the story of a love affair. It gives the film something of the look and feel of a classy television drama or mini-series in the manner of La Bicyclette Bleu, with far too many beautiful French movie starlets (Cécile de France, Julie Depardieu, Ludivine Sagnier) to carry adequate weight. Even Mattieu Almaric is wasted in the poorly developed 1985 sequence, where the death of a dog certainly has significance, but fails to carry the import that hasn’t been sufficiently established elsewhere. The real impact of the story should however be in the depiction of the past, and although there are certainly some interesting issues raised in respect of heritage, questions of weakness and strength, and the father and son relationships which become particularly complex when placed in the context of the Jewish experience of the war years, the historical events tend to fall into the background in favour of the unconvincing love-triangle that develops between Bruel, de France and Sagnier’s characters. While this certainly opens up secrets in the past that the protagonists would clearly prefer not to talk about, it never really confronts the real secrets of the French-Jewish experience and the true horror of the war years.
View the Trailer.