'A Secret' Unfolded, And Others Half-Buried

Patrick Bruel and Valentin Vigourt share a moment i i

hide captionIntroverted adolescent Francois (Valentin Vigourt, right) learns that his athletic father (Patrick Bruel) hasn't always made championship choices.

Strand Releasing
Patrick Bruel and Valentin Vigourt share a moment

Introverted adolescent Francois (Valentin Vigourt, right) learns that his athletic father (Patrick Bruel) hasn't always made championship choices.

Strand Releasing

A Secret

  • Director: Claude Miller
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Unrated: Scenes of sexuality, family strife and Holocaust atrocities.

Patrick Bruel and Cecile de France, dancing i i

hide captionMaxime (Patrick Bruel, left) and Tania (Cecile de France) look like the perfect couple. But he's married — and they're both Jews in Nazi-occupied France.

Strand Releasing
Patrick Bruel and Cecile de France, dancing

Maxime (Patrick Bruel, left) and Tania (Cecile de France) look like the perfect couple. But he's married — and they're both Jews in Nazi-occupied France.

Strand Releasing

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Note: Clip includes graphic historical footage that will disturb some viewers.

Claude Miller's ravishingly shot drama A Secret gives up its titular mystery early, so it may seem odd to speak of the suspense it generates.

But with a tricky imagined- flashback-within-real-flashback structure — and a tale more complex than even the inventive adolescent at its center quite comprehends — there's plenty of cinematic intrigue well after what's covert in this complicated family story becomes overt.

Scrawny, awkward, lonely Francois, aware that he's a disappointment to his athletic parents, invents a strapping older brother to keep him company in the decade following World War II. What's clear, from the glances passing between his parents as he sets an extra place at the table, is that there's some truth to his invention.

But even after he learns that truth, Francois is only partway to uncovering the traumas his family endured during the Holocaust. His journey of discovery mimics that of author Philippe Grimbert, a French psychoanalyst whose roman a clef is the movie's source material — and who based the novel on his own family's history.

The screen tale begins in the 1980s, with the adult Francois (Mathieu Amalric) hearing from his mother, Tania (Cecile de France), that his now elderly father, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), has wandered off after an accident that killed the family dog.

As Francois looks for his father, his thoughts turn to his childhood realization that his parents' marriage did not begin as the romantic idyll he'd once imagined for them but amid atrocities that had long gone unmentioned in his family. In fact, their passion flowered just as Maxime was marrying sweet, mousy Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) — a fact that had tragic consequences.

The tricky chronology — made trickier by the fact that Miller films the '80s scenes in black and white, while steeping scenes in the more distant past in rich, luxuriant color — matches a complex subtext.

Francois isn't the only one troubled by issues of identity: His father thinks of himself almost exclusively as a French patriot rather than as a Jew (a religious identity he regards as inconvenient), while blond, bronzed swimming champion Tania might have stepped directly from an Aryan youth poster, were it not for the yellow star affixed to her coat.

Their complicated relationship with their heritage has at least as much to do with the richness of this family portrait as their complicated relationship with the son who paints it.

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