Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
A Secret poignantly captures the complexities of being a Jew in France from the 1930’s to the present, where layers of a family’s history are revealed by jumping back and forth in time.
In his autobiographical novel (published in English as Memory), Philippe Grimbert used his imagination to fill in the unknowns as he gradually discovered how his family intersected with their tumultuous times. In his very visual adaptation, director and co-writer Claude Miller brings the past to even fuller life by turning a first-person meditative narrative into an intense story with vividly portrayed characters.
The near-present (1985) is in black and white when psychologist François (Mathieu Amalric) gets a pleading call from his mother. She is concerned that his father, who may have touches of Alzheimer’s, has gone missing while looking for his runaway dog. Within this somewhat heavy-handed metaphor, François thinks back on his parents’ past.
During his childhood, seen in sepia hues, his beautiful blonde mother Tania (Cécile de France) turns all heads at the pool with her graceful diving, while his father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) is a muscular gymnast constantly working out on home equipment. But puny François, both as a child (Valentin Vigourt) and a young teen (Quentin Dubuis), always feels inadequate around his athletic parents. He fears they are somehow expecting him to be like some other, phantom brother, so he creates one as an imaginary foil, to their discomfort. Their next-door neighbor, redheaded Louise (Julie Depardieu), soothes him in Yiddish and assures him that her massages and vitamins will build him up, even as she drops hints over the years that his family isn’t quite what they seem. The riveting story of how Maxime and Tania met and fell in love while their world shifts from normal to abnormal is filmed in sensual color that sparkles to almost an overwrought extent when nature and passion overtake them (the beautiful cinematography is by Gérard de Battista).
The stark issues of passing as a gentile during the Nazi Occupation and striving to assimilate in French society in the post-war years are emphasized through the casting, with Miller countering stereotyped images of Jews in films. Amalric is in a role very similar to the one he played in Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector, but warmer as a pediatric autistic specialist, though his narration is far more solemn than in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Ludivine Sagnier, the temptress from Miller’s La Petite Lili, here is an auburn-haired wife first radiant then tragically conflicted. Young François’s primary connection to his Jewish identity is through his dark-haired grandparents and plain Aunt Esther (Nathalie Boutefeu)—until he sees film footage of the concentration camps in history class and starts asking questions about what his family did during the war.
It is hard enough to see our parents as flawed individuals, but it is even more challenging to understand the difficult choices they made under extreme stress before we were born. The adult François, like Grimbert did and this film does for Miller, finds a cathartic way to memorialize his family’s past that is very specific to France’s history (with references that might be a bit arcane for American audiences).
brings into one moving film elements that have been touched on through
other features, from the tensions during wartime of
reenactment of the panicked exodus from Paris in Strayed, and
Almost Peaceful that captured the unease of Jews returning to
their homes after the war and trying to fit into a society that had
turned on them. Two recent documentaries support this film, the
clandestine affair of the Holocaust survivors of Michèle Ohayon’s
Steal a Pencil for Me, and Catherine Bernstein’s chilling tracing of
the life and fate of her fashionable Parisian aunt in Murder of a
Hatmaker. Nora Lee Mandel