Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

A Secret

Review by David Tredler
A week after the opening of Babylon A.D. (an adaptation of a cult French novel), the U.S. arthouse circuit welcomes another transposition of a French best-seller, in a very different genre; a historical drama about Judaism and World War II.

François remembers. He remembers when he was a kid, a few years after the war ended, small and skinny, the son of two Jewish athletes very much in love. He remembers that to cope with the fact that he was an only child, he invented himself a brother whom his parents could be proud of. François remembers the day his parents’ best friend told him a secret. A secret about what life was like during WWII, before François was born. A secret that would change his look on his family forever.

A Secret is the kind of film you don’t want to spoil the screenplay evolutions for, in order to keep the eye of the spectator fresh. What I just wrote will be enough for you to decide whether the story interests you, but it is not enough to describe everything the film has to offer. Adapted from the autobiographical novel of the same name by Philippe Grimbert, A Secret is, first and foremost, a deeply moving story. A film both intimate and popular, relying more on its characters and their evolution than on anything else.

A Secret is a film about remembrance. Remembrance on a personal level, our relationship to our family’s history, and remembrance of History itself. A filmmaker who has shown talent during his career to evoke childhood and its torments (The Best Way to Walk, L’effrontée, Class Trip), Claude Miller is at ease here with placing a child at the heart of the film. He is also at ease with dealing with Judaism in a time of deportation, and the blindness of some people then as to what was at stake with every single act, every single gesture of the unfortunate heroes of the epoch.

Taking place at three different period frames, A Secret audaciously superposes time, between a present shot in black and white, and two different pasts. That shift between eras gives to the atmosphere of the film an intangible sense of suffocation, but in a good way... there’s a palpable sense of encroaching danger, a dark secret hiding somewhere, waiting to be revealed. And once the secret is unveiled, the difficulty faced by the director is to keep the pace and the tone to what becomes an inevitable tragedy.

Many times, the film could have swung into a ridiculous drama where the spectator would have lost all interest. That slight danger follows through the whole film, preventing it from being a real cinematographic success.  It is sometimes too clumsy, notably in the supposed big love story at the core of the film, between François’ parents. But the great characters offer the thespians (Ludivine Sagnier, Cécile de France, Julie Depardieu, Mathieu Amalric, Patrick Bruel) the space to show their acting abilities, and Miller’s talent is to turn this intimate drama into a slow, maturing, heartbreaking tale about living with your ghosts and with guilt, surviving and moving on.

3 ½ / 5 stars

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