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A Secret
cast: Patrick Bruel, Cecile De France, Julie Depardieu, and Mathieu Amalric

director: Claude Miller

106 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
During the build-up to the war in Iraq, right-wing Americans decided that the French refusal to support the invasion of Iraq was a return to form for a nation that effectively surrendered to the Nazis. The term 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' taps into this image of the French as a sensual people who prefer a fine meal to killing Nazis, as Captain Mainwaring once put it in Dad's Army, the French military are "no good after lunch." Of course, this is far from the truth. Marcel Ophuls' two-part documentary film The Sorrow And The Pity (1969) interviews a number of French politicians and discovers that the reason for the collapse of the French military during World War Two was not cowardice or sloth but rather deep-seated anti-Semitism and Anglophobia among the French political classes that made the idea of a France allied with Hitler a rather attractive proposition, particularly if moral complacency could be protected by the fig leaf of nationalism. While not directly concerned with these issues, Claude Miller's A Secret, an adaptation of the Philippe Grimbert novel, Un Secret (2004), deals with French anti-Semitism during that period.

The film is told mostly in flashback from a back and white present in which the psychologist François Grimbert (Mathieu Amalric) rushes home to deal with his father Maxime (Patrick Bruel), who is inconsolable with grief after his pet dog was run over. The flashbacks hark back to two distinct periods in François's life.

The first period reveals François to have been a sickly and timid child. The film begins with the young boy being lead out of a changing room and towards the pool by his beautiful, athletic mother Tania (Cecile De France) who waves to her son as she performs a graceful dive into the pool while her son shivers and clings to the steps. Faced with an equally sporty father (Bruel) who is repelled by his son's weak constitution, François retreats into a fantasy world where a sporty older brother protects and encourages him. After being belatedly baptised, François uncovers a stuffed dog in the loft and, despite being warned off of it by his mother, he takes it to bed with him only to be wracked by dreams and fever until he throws it through his window only for a visibly horrified father to quietly reclaim the toy the following morning, secreting it inside his jacket. Miserable and alienated, François draws comfort only from his neighbour (Julie Depardieu) and thoughts of the mythical wartime farm in which his parents met and fell in love.

Years pass and we rejoin Fran´┐Żois as a teenager. Telling his neighbour he is sick of her always going on about 'goys' and 'yids' and unwilling to even admit to talking to a Jewish girl, François claims to be completely uninterested in Jewishness but, when confronted by a classmate making anti-Semitic comments while the class is shown footage of Auschwitz, Grimbert flies into a murderous rage, claiming he wants to smash his class-mate's face in. Where does this rage come from?

After some discussion of his rage with his neighbour, François starts to learn the horrible truth about his family. A secret whose guilt he has been carrying his entire life without even knowing it. His neighbour reveals that not only did François have a brother but also that his father was married prior to marrying his mother, but that both the child and the wife died during the Holocaust.

To discuss the film in any greater detail would have to involve revealing the secret that the film revolves around and, as I do not want to spoil this film for anyone, I prefer not to reveal what that secret might be. However, the film's final act is a powerful piece of work. De France and Bruel do sterling work, conveying a couple circling more and more destructively and more and more tightly around each other before eventually taking a final morally unacceptable step. This circling is portrayed through a series of scenes that are incredibly sensual despite their lack of physical intimacy. The two feign hostility and lack of interest but a glance at their eyes show these to be mere social niceties. In one fantastic scene, De France is dressed for mourning and while her face speaks of grief, her eyes speak of joy and liberation.

While undeniably an intelligent and emotionally fascinating story, A Secret suffers for Claude Miller's failure to successfully convert the story from a novel to a film. The novel is based upon two separate stories, the first told subjectively from the point of view of the young Grimbert, and the second from the perspective of the wiser and older François who has learned the truth about his family. In the novel both of these are presented as coherent visions of the world but instead of passing over the state of innocence in order to get to the meat of the piece, Miller spends valuable time clumsily foreshadowing the fact that there is some hideous family secret. Given that the film is called A Secret this seems like overkill to me and the wasting of time is really felt in the third act when the weakness of the secondary characters almost undermine the story. For example, the father's first wife is presented as entirely free of agency so when she does make a decision, which ultimately defines the film and François' life, it feels arbitrary to the point of being completely incomprehensible. If she was driven to such a choice then Miller decided not to include any of the material justifying it. The same is true of the role of the neighbour whose chats fortify François and ultimately set him on the path to being a psychologist but her close friendship with Maxime and Tania and complicity in the airbrushing of their past seems to be partly motivated by her intense physical attraction to Tania.

Interestingly, these changes place the focus more heavily upon the parents than it does upon François, a character based closely upon the author Philippe Grimbert whose story was fictionalised in the original novel. Indeed, if you focus on Grimbert then the film (much like the novel) is a story of a young man whose Jewish roots were torn from him by French anti-Semitism in the 1940s; an anti-Semitism that not only made his government complicit in the Holocaust but also a self-loathing anti-Semitism that pushed his own parents to lie about their past and change their name so as to live together free of guilt. An act of horrific self-denial that, as far as Grimbert's parents were concerned, the Holocaust was a good thing as it allowed them to free themselves from their unwanted pasts and lives.

The shift of focus from François to his parents and the rushed nature of the third act serve to downplay a lot of the repercussions of their actions and therefore gives them a good deal more moral leeway than they arguably deserved. In fact, the novel states that Tania joined Maxime in the free zone before Maxime summoned his wife. This not only further incriminates the relatively passive Tania; it also goes some way to explain why Maxime's wife felt so desperate.

This shift of focus also robs the film's final scene of its true power. In the epilogue, an older Grimbert walks his daughter through a park he discovers to be the pet cemetery for the dogs of Josée de Chambrun, daughter and final defender of Pierre Laval, the architect of the Vichy government's decision to deport Jewish children along with their parents so as to 'keep families together'. So de Chambrun was a woman cold enough to defend a man who sent thousands of Jewish children to their deaths but sentimental enough to keep a lavish cemetery for her pet dogs. Of course, François' father hardly mourned his wife and child... but he fell apart at the death of his dog.

There is a truly great film lurking in and around A Secret but the film presented on this DVD is not quite it. Interestingly, some of the reasons for this come to the surface in the seemingly shallow making-of documentary included on the DVD. At one point, the director makes much of how he is simply an instigator and how he wants to give his actors a lot of leeway in which to find their characters. In a sense, this is an abdication of responsibility, particularly when it is made clear that, while very pretty, Ms de France is probably not the sharpest tool in the box ("there are no good guys and bad guys," she points out bizarrely). It is also possible that, when confronted with such strong performances, Miller fell in love with the characters and then felt obliged to pull his punches in the final edit. Either way, I shall mourn this unmade film for while I think A Secret is a genuinely good film, it is not as good as it should have been.
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