It’s no use pretending that director Claude Miller’s latest film doesn’t contain a few trappings of tedious melodrama. The most basic ingredients of A Secret are a self-torturing personal history of the Holocaust, a troubled family with skeletons in its closet, and a mildly sudsy love triangle, all packaged together with a sprawling, flashback-intensive storytelling style. It helps that Miller knows what he’s working with, and that he works it well.
The year is 1985. There is voice-over narration and the aura of remembrance. The range of focus is shallow, the imagery a dull washout of black-and-white. Ah, this must be a flashback, we figure. But how come the scenes in color are from 30-plus years before? And how is it that the details in those scenes seem somehow more palpable, more exact? Whatever “now” means, it will have to be a product of memory and muddled perspective. Can we trust it?
In Paris in 1955, young François (Valentin Vigourt) is the meek and sickly son of a champion swimmer, Tania (Cécile De France), and an ardent gymnast (Patrick Bruel), Maxime, whose parental affections for him seem mysteriously provisional. François gets the idea that mom and dad consider him a disappointment, yet his habit of fantasizing that he has an older, more robust and outgoing brother seems disproportionately disturbing to them–sort of in the same way his own reaction to a classroom screening of Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ unsparing 1955 documentary about Nazi concentration camps, is to him: Something about those fleeting scenes of sunken bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, combined with harassment from an obliviously anti-Semitic classmate, taps right into a rage François didn’t know–or remember–that he had. And when he flips out and beats the other kid up, dad’s surprise registers as an unfamiliar kind of pride. On the other hand, a few years later, when a sullen teenaged François (Quentin Dubuis) catches the eye of a Jewish girl at the public pool, the look his parents pass between them registers as an unfamiliar kind of shame.
OK, obviously somebody here has some unpacking to do, psyche-wise. That task falls to a family friend (Julie Depardieu) with a protective fondness of François, who reveals to him some presumed-unmentionable details about what went down during the Nazi occupation, and accordingly topples his romanticized understanding of his parents’ early life together. It turns out that Maxime and Tania first discovered their mutual attraction on the day he married her husband’s sister, Helen (Ludivine Sagnier). What’s more, Maxime and Helen had a robust and outgoing son, Simon (Orlando Nicoletti), who died, along with his mother, during the war. Does what bloomed between Maxime and Tania thereafter constitute an unconscionable tragedy of betrayal, or an affirming triumph of love? Or both?
In any case, François’ life will be the answer. Yeah: No pressure or anything.
The source material for A Secret is Memory, a lauded 2004 autobiographical novel by the French psychoanalyst Philippe Grimbert, whose parents did indeed have an affair while the Nazis murdered their spouses, and later committed suicide together when their son still was young. Co-scripting with Natalie Carter, Miller has adapted Grimbert’s book with empathy and precision, and his actors perform gracefully. Bruel, De France, Sagnier and Depardieu each provide an essential-seeming piece of the film’s complex comment on assimilation and survivor’s guilt. As the older François, whose present-tense narration is the movie’s framework, Mathieu Amalric proves once again how graciously he consents to being underused. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, all Amalric really had to work with, most of the time, was a single blinking eyelid; in Quantum of Solace, he could at least move around more, if only to wade through a lukewarm stew of Bond-villain clichés. Here, he’s just not present very much, but of course neither is the present tense.
All told, it’s an elegant production: Cinematographer Gérard de Battista and production designer Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko seem to understand each other, and the director, exceptionally well; and composer Zbigniew Preisner, always alert to the cinematic register of poignant profundity, scores such moments with typical beauty and restraint. These are the difference-making details.
To take the movie’s own point, what really matters about A Secret isn’t conventionality but integrity.