March 2, 2009

The Secret Lives of Les Francais

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In all likelihood, you probably have never heard of the 2007 French film Un Secret (or “A Secret”, for all you non-French speakers out there). Not only was the film solely distributed in its native country, but it is a wholly sub-titled picture that is performed, written, and directed by an entirely French ensemble. And the film’s anonymousness with American audiences is a shame, as Secret is a poignantly heart-wrenching affair whose anguish and tenderness transcends any language barrier. Through its untraditional plot structure and intimate character storylines, Un Secret intrigues the mind and satisfies the heart with vigorous poignancy.
Un Secret is a movie about ordinary Jewish people living in extraordinarily savage times. Written and directed by Claude Miller, the film is a skillful adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s novel of the same name. Based on a true story, Un Secret details the story of a Jewish family being torn apart during the turbulent times of Nazi occupation in France, and explains the consequences that arise from the separation. The film begins in a Parisian beach club circa 1955, as we meet our frail, young protagonist François (Mathieu Almalric). Despite François’s noticeable diminutive stature, there is nothing particularly off-putting about the opening sequence, as carefree children are shown playing with their families, delighting in the summer sun’s warmth. All seems to be right in the world, until director Miller tersely thrusts us thirty years into the future, where we are met with a far somber setting. The film’s storytelling is defiantly fragmented, unabashedly jumping around time periods and shifting character focuses like no other. Miller treats the present tense of the film, set in 1985, with a black-and-white filtered gloom, showing the film’s central characters aged and burdened by their pasts. Allusions to this present time period are frequent, however fleeting, serving as important reminders that the root of the film’s storytelling has impossibly lingering implications.
The crux of the film’s plot development centers around the storytelling of Louise, (magnificently portrayed by Julie DePardieu) who we first meet as she medically attends to the young François in childhood. A long-time acquaintance of his parents, Louise is a matronly figure in François’s life, giving him the attention and appreciation that his parents deny him of. This peculiarly bristly relationship between François and his parents – notably between his strong, domineering father, Maxime (Patrick Bruel) – at the film’s onset is largely unexplained and mysterious, until director Miller again shifts the plot’s chronology, this time to 1962, where Louise divulges the painful secret that François’s parents have kept from the boy for years.
In the interest of not divulging too much about the film’s most salacious moments – after all, how much of a secret would Un Secret be if I gave away the entire storyline – I will not go into detail about Louise’s tearful testimony. Nevertheless, upon hearing the anecdotes about the trying period faced by François’s family – living as Jews in an anti-Semitic time – all the ambiguities early on in the film become abundantly clear. These uncertainties are largely due to François’s eccentric behavior as a young boy. Shortly after its cheerful beach club onset, Un Secret reveals itself to be a deeply layered film that has psychological depth and emotional consequences. Growing up, François discloses that he feels he has an imaginary older brother, someone who was better looking and stronger than he ever could be. Whether he tried to swim like his model mother, Tania (Cecile DeFrance), or be a gymnast like his Olympian father, Maxime, François believes he is constantly walking in his phantom brother’s shadow. He even uncomfortably wakes up in cold sweats during the night, subconsciously sensing that there was a secret about his family’s past.
What this secret is may or may not be obvious to you at this point. One thing is clear, however; one secret can affect the lives of so many people, and alter the consequences of so many actions. Miller deliberately utilizes the plot’s shapelessness to draw out these meanings, as you are left appreciating the smallest of details in the story’s many twists and turns. In the end, Un Secret completely absorbs you into the tale of this insufferably intolerant period of Nazi Occupation. By the time François realizes the secret you cannot help but wish it was all just a dream. If only life worked this way.