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French war drama's slack grip on story

Un Secret: 105 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Claude Miller. Starring: Cécile De France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Valentin Vigourt

Un Secret This French period drama sounds compelling on paper. Part coming-of-age film and part tragic love story, stained by the smoke of the Second World War and the crippling angst of the Holocaust, it belongs to that class of films that locate the emotionally and ethically complex stories woven into the brutal tapestry of that era.

Unfortunately it suffers from an inefficiency of structure which means that as a piece of cinematic storytelling, it is worthy but unsatisfactory.

The first act is intriguing. Seven-year-old François (Vigourt) lives a haunted existence. Ghosts and guilt lurk in the corners of the house where he lives with his mother, Tania (De France) and Jewish father, Maxime (Bruel).

Smart but scrawny, François feels like the second prize in his disapproving gymnast father's life. Evidently this has something to do with the titular 'secret'. The early part of the film deals with François as he edges closer to the truth, in order to understand his parents' troubled past and forge his own sense of self and destiny.

A touch of magical realism that suggests François' childlike imagination, and the restrained charisma of young actors Vigourt and Quentin Dubuis (who portrays François at 14), mean this first act is quite striking.

Unfortunately the revelation of 'the secret' is less striking. It comes via an extended, meandering flashback, which comprises the bulk of the remaining portion of the film. This is lazy, tedious storytelling, particularly given that viewers will be able to guess the outcome very early, at least in general terms.

I won't retread the film's painstaking steps. Suffice it to say that Maxime has been married before, and that he became estranged from his first wife, Hannah (Sagnier) and adored son Simon (Orlando Nicoletti) during the War, after the Nazis began imprisoning France's Jews.

The estrangement came about due, in part, to Hannah's emotional decimation at the hands of her neglectful husband, who is infatuated with her brother's wife — the statuesque blonde athlete, Tania (destined, as we know, to become his wife and François' mother).

Hannah's tragic choices, if poorly made, are understandable in light of Maxime's neglect, and underscored by her desire to neither deny nor conceal her cultural roots.

This is in stark contrast to Maxime — dark featured and muscular, but slightly bowed under the perceived and resented weight of his Jewish heritage. The degree to which his self-loathing prompted his infatuation with the decidedly un-Jewish Tania, and his subsequent emotional abuse of Hannah, is not clear.

The questions regarding cultural identity, matrimonial propriety and parental instincts that pervade the film are interesting — it's a shame they are not articulated more concisely. Some stories require a 'less is more' approach to keep a tight grip on their audience. The meticulous explication of Un Secret leaves the fist decidedly loose.

Official website

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction. Email Tim



Topic tags: TIm Kroenert, Un Secret, Claude Miller, Cécile De France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric



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Existing comments

Eureka's reviewer must have seen a different movie! Didnt he see Tania, François' mother pull the star of David off her coat when she went into the grand couturier's building as she went to her modelling job? When and where was the emotional abuse of Hannah by Maxime? She was on her way to join him in Vichy when the strain, stress, conflict and grief at loss of her parents 'did her in'. Have a coeur, Tim!

Carmel Maguire | 22 May 2008  

Oui. Oiu. I do agree Carmel.

Also, unmentioned in this film review is the depiction of the less than valiant collaborators - in this film, French police - who did the dirty work of the Nazis for them. The dominant French narrative to date has focused on the courageous communist resistance, which we know to be not quite the full story.

Journalist, Anna King Murdoch, in The Age (22 May), writes of the splendid actress Ludivine Sagnieur who plays Hannah thus: "..when she first realises that the husband she adores has fallen for another woman, Sagnieur's eyes take you on a vertiginous journey from sweet faced happiness to the first knowledge of betrayal to miraculously, the first tragic hints of a deranged misery."

Well said Anna K.M! Well worth the price of admission for this scene alone. And what gorgeous bodies abound. No eating disorders in the 1940s presumably!

davidhicks | 23 May 2008  

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