I thought this film was astonishingly good. Beautifully cast, well acted, gloriously lit and photographed, intelligently edited and clearly directed by a great filmmaker – what more could you want? OK, it’s ‘conventional’, it’s a literary adaptation and it’s a ‘period piece’. But that’s fine with me if it’s carried off with this expertise.
We are back again in wartime France (as per Les femmes des ombres) and also back in French-Jewish society (as per La question humaine). But I think this is the more ‘coherent’ film (to use Victor Perkins’ expression from Film as Film). Based on a recent popular novel, Un secret tells the story of an extended Jewish family. It begins with 7 year-old François in 1955 and flashes back and forward to the 1930s, 40s, 60s and 80s. This suggests a very fractured narrative, but the transitions are handled expertly. When François is 14 he finally learns from Louise (whose relationship to the family is not clear, but who is possibly a cousin or ‘auntie’) what the secret is that has overshadowed his childhood. In the 1980s the 37 year-old François must deal with his ageing parents, who in the 1950s are two glorious specimens – Tania is a swimmer/diver (and model), Maxime is a gymnast, in contrast to weedy François. The ‘secret’ takes us back to the 1930s and the split in the Grinberg family which sees Maxime denying his Jewish heritage. By 1955, Grinberg has become Grimbert.
I don’t want to spoil enjoyment by revealing more of the story. Suffice to say, the central section of the film deals with the occupation and establishment of Vichy France and the collaboration with the Nazi regime that saw French Jews deported to extermination camps. Having worked on films like Fateless recently, I was struck by the ‘Jewishness’ of the family scenes in terms of mise en scène (costume – the yellow stars), language (the use of Yiddish) and most of all casting. Cécile de France (a Belgian actor I haven’t seen before) stands out as an impossibly beautiful blonde, the epitome of Aryan womanhood (making me think of the French national heroine ‘Marianne’) who is cast as Tania, the Jewish woman who can ‘pass’ in her job as a fashion model, whereas the other women are all convincing as Jewish family members. This disparity is picked up in the clips from Triumph of the Will and Olympiad that the family see in the cinema. In another comment, there is a discussion about Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (1937) which takes place in a setting which several times invokes Renoir’s rural masterpiece Partie de campagne (1936).
I realise that I am on dangerous ground in commenting on casting. The only benchmark I have for recognising a 1930s Jewish family setting is based on other movies, photographs and my own imagination via novels. So, I’m dealing in familiar types and suggesting that Claude Miller has consciously cast within a typical representation of Jewishness expressed in facial features and gestures, mannerisms, speech patterns etc. His exploration of Jewish identity issues is largely contained within mise en scène, costume and performance rather than via dramatic action sequences (which I think makes this a melodrama in the modern sense). Locations become symbolic, so that interaction takes place in four principal locations: the Grinberg/Grimbert home and the adjoining shops etc belonging to the Jewish community, a Jewish family wedding, a local lido (where Maxime will eventually be denied entry during the occupation) and the house in the country (place of escape). The more I think about it, the more this feels like a film to explore on this level. The Sight and Sound review by Catherine Wheatley (June 2008) suggests that the camera framings are used to create a sense of perspective both for the young boy who seeks an answer and also Louise the character who helps to narrate the story and provide François with the history he needs to know. Wheatley also suggests in her perceptive review that the film manages to be both focused on the Jewish identity/denial question and to offer a broader study on questions of assimilation that could refer to any minority community.
The seeming lack of interest in this film in the UK says something (it attracted 1.6 million admissions in France). Britain did not experience the trauma of occupation and Jewish deportation, but audiences seem to become engrossed in Spielberg’s more obvious narratives such as Schindler’s List. Un secret seems a more nuanced and intelligent film. Julie Depardieu as Louise has the most potent lines when she says that faced with the Nazi occupation it is necessary to avoid judging how people deal with the horror of their situation and simply get on with doing the ordinary things of everyday life (which embody identity and culture).
I don’t know the director Claude Miller that well, though I enjoyed his earlier Ruth Rendell adaptation, Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). I understand that it is possible to situate Un secret in relation to his other films, like Betty Fisher, featuring children and adolescents. So there is an auteurist perspective on his work, but I don’t think that should prevent any audience being moved by superior filmmaking without auteurist knowledge.
Regular readers will know that I am often exercised by what I see as the hopeless reviewing practice of the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw – claimed by some in the UK as the most important critic for the box office potential of specialised films. He gave Un secret one star and dismissed it as “a muddled, pretentious washout”. Words fail me. Philip French, as usual, showed him up in the Observer. But comments like Bradshaw’s do seem to make distributors nervous. Un secret opened on just two screens in London with a pretty good screen average for the niche distributor Arrow. It’s hard to develop an audience with such a low key audience, but if the film comes your way, I urge you to see it. Otherwise it’s down to a DVD release.