Photograph by Jerome Prebois
DECORATIVE COUPLE: Cécile de France and Patrick Bruel play high-style parents in 'A Secret.'
Claude Miller's 'A Secret' traces three eras in the secret history of a converted Jewish family
By Richard von Busack
IN A Secret, his adaptation of a semiautobiographical bestseller by Philippe Grimbert, director Claude Miller tires to link together three different eras. A black-and-white mid-1980s duels with a full-color 1940s past, which is an interesting reversal of the usual way it's done. In between this romanticized past and this bleak present we see a sadder intermediate stage in the 1950s, sepia with regret and low-watt lighting. The narrator is François, played by a series of actors; he's first the undersized son of an apparently Catholic family, a disappointment to his athletic father, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), As he matures, the boy is attracted to a Jewish girl; this leads to the fact that François was the child of Jewish converts who changed their names. François feels all the more like the ugly duckling because his mother, Tania (Cécile de France), is a blonde, goddessy, golden-skinned creature, a former model and a swimming champ. By contrast, Francois is so undersized he has to get vitamin shots from a family friend (Julie Depardieu) who is also the repository of this family's real history. There's some trauma, some ur-memory of Jewishness that keeps breaking out in François despite his Catholic identity. He flips out during a history class because of insensitive comments the kid next to him makes about a Holocaust film. In the 1980s, the elderly Maxime has a small breakdown after losing his dog; the dog escaped, and the cat gets out of the bag, too, as the now grownup François (the omnipresent Mathieu Amalric) learns the secret. In the 1940s flashbacks, we watch the growing rift between Maxime and his first wife, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), because of Tania. De France's beauty, exhibited on diving boards at 1950s swimming pools and country lakes, must have been part of what got this film released in America—that, as well as the presence of Amalric, currently starring in Quantum of Solace). It does take considerable beauty to make Sangier look like anybody's idea of a plain rival. Hannah must be trying to compensate. She's a storyteller, a charmer; she also knows magic tricks for parties. Unfortunately, although de France is quite decorative, she doesn't have the real magnetism to hold this endlessly darting film together. A Secret is rich looking, with some well-dressed sets of Paris during the Accordion Age. This three-era pousse-café is concocted with moments of directoral bluntness. Miller cuts directly from a couple making love to a screaming childbirth scene. Such a cut does show cause and effect, but it's essentially graceless. Trying to keep time marching, Miller trips over his own flashbacks. One time too many, he lets the camera coast from some emotional scene to a discarded newspaper nearby, with a screaming headline. These five-star-extra editions of the Paris Bugle might as well have read "PORTENT OF DOOM MENACES HAPPY FAMILY." As the Germans approach, and Miller drops the names of actual historical events into the soap, he builds to a really unfortunate climax. It's almost worth watching: a gesture of sacrifice that's close to an all-time high for passive-aggressivity in the movies.
A SECRET (Unrated; 105 min.), directed by Claude Miller, written by Miller and Natalie Carter, photographed by Gérard de Battista and starring Cécile de France and Patrick Bruel, opens Nov. 21 at Camera 3 in San Jose.
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