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Games of Wickedness

'Secret Things' uses sex to fight the social order

By Richard von Busack

ONLY IN FRANCE will you find such a film-fancying periodical like Cahiers du Cinema brave enough to pronounce Secret Things the best film of 2002. This is extreme, but an extreme stance is what you expect from a film journal. In the United States, when critical necks get stuck out, it's for junk like Femme Fatale or Charlie's Angels.

Secret Things (Choses Secrètes), with its noble old-time sex-movie title, is in a different ideological league than what Brian De Palma has been doing lately. It's the kind of film Femme Fatale and Showgirls have been recast as in articles by optimistic but misguided critics. Even though Secret Things lies squarely in the field of the vaguely international-styled erotic femme-fatale tale, it recognizes possibilities for mad subversion and exploits them.

Secret Things works out its games of wickedness with Baroque music in the background; the harpsichord and strings on the soundtrack invoke Laclos' original bad-girl novel, 1782's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with its steel-hearted courtesans and its epigrams about the path to power via sex. In Jean-Claude Brisseau's film, it's clear that the two heroines aren't porno adventuresses but sworn opponents to the social order.

The film's first shot is of a nude, legs akimbo, reclining on blood-red drapery; a flapping bird roosts behind a shade, unseen to us, and we hear the ticking of a clock. The dancer rises into a stiff ballet, but we never sure how to respond because we're not sure what we're watching: modern dance? performance art? Wrong both times: it's a strip club in which the audience shows its pleasure by rising up silently and pulling the dancer off into the shadows to consume her.

Watching this show, the narrating bartender Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), says she's always liked this dancer, Nathalie (Coralie Revel). Nathalie's performance is the highlight of this awful job the younger girl has drifted into, and which she hopes to drift out of soon.

After the club owner makes a crude proposition to Sandrine, the two women quit the club, hook up and move in together. In record time, Nathalie instructs the younger girl in masturbation--the better to be able to fake an orgasm when the time requires. Thus begins Sandrine's lessons in becoming a manhunter, so that both can get the money they deserve. ("I'm not pretty enough," says Sandrine. "All us girls say that," Nathalie answers. )

There are a few nerve-strengthening exercise, including a session of public masturbation at the Porte des Lilas Metro station. Nathalie suggests they could do their best work in an office; that's the way to find "some nice guy who hasn't lived," so as to use him, drop him and take his money.

The two are hired as secretaries--picked out of a line of applicants because they have the best legs. From different angles, both women try to work their way up to the office of the head of the corporation, the ruthless, handsome Christophe Barney (Fabrice Deville), hoping to climb to him via a ladder of executives.

The plot is slightly pre-Code material; Barbara Stanwyck once slept her way up a skyscraper in the 1933 film Baby Face, and in that film it was also clear that the bad economy might justify bad behavior.

Some of what happens in Secret Things can be guessed: the pupil surpassing her master, the hunter getting captured by the game. The diabolism of the film is amplified by Brisseau's method. Brisseau is a former schoolteacher turned filmmaker, mentored by Eric Rohmer. Brisseau hasn't favored the erotic over the dramatic. He even elides some of the sex scenes in favor of story development.

The erotic is a strong element, particularly in one rather berserk scene of Sandrine hiding herself behind the open door of a busy office and stripping to tease her current lover--a married sad sack named Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), even as co-workers saunter in and out of his office.

Yet the sleek-bodied women are not the usual Showtime love objects. The student ex-bartendress Sandrine possesses the stance and poise of a dancer, but she also emits a loud, uncouth laugh--she shows her teeth and cackles. She has the hard, impassive face and thick, untied hair of a woman in a Leger painting.

Nathalie has her own political reasons for getting money and revenge: "There's no debauchery without power or protection, even if you're poor." And there's even a little pinch of old-school feminism in what happens to Natalie eventually, in whom she chooses to marry for the (relatively, purportedly) happy ending.

In the last third, Secret Thing takes a turn into Eyes Wide Shut country but surpasses Kubrick's film in dark intention. When you think of it, all the craft and technique of Eyes Wide Shut boils down to a message you could have printed in Redbook: "Today's young married couples may fantasize about affairs, but really, they're better off sticking together." In Secret Things, words that sound like slightly altered Marquis de Sade come out of the mouth of the corporate tyrant Christophe.

Of course, the sex is terrific, but as the French intellectual says in that old joke, It works in practice, but more importantly, does it work in theory? Secret Things has formal symmetry (the ticking of the clock, the red drapery bracketing the story). The fact remains that any erotic content in a movie makes the film seem slightly silly to American eyes; oddly, the most positive review in America of Secret Things was a little dismissive, calling the film "wild and woolly." The attention to the grievances of these women makes Secret Things a movie that would fit snugly on a double bill with either Dangerous Liaisons or Faster Pussycat! Kill, Kill!

Secret Things (R; 115 min.), directed and written by Jean-Claude Brisseau, photographed by Wilfred Sempé and starring Sabrina Seyvecou and Coralie Revel, opens Feb. 6 in San Francisco and the East Bay.

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Web extra to the February 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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