Based on an autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert, 2007’s A Secret is, on one level, the story of a Jewish family's struggle to survive during the Second World War. On another level, it is a tale of forbidden love and its emotional consequences.
It's also a study in timing—the "if onlys","what ifs" and "should have beens" in life. We have all, at some point, been the beneficiaries of good timing: arriving at the bus stop just as our bus pulls up, or being the fifth caller when that’s what it takes to win the prize. Similarly, we've all experienced some measure of bad timing: being the sixth caller, or arriving at the bus stop moments after the bus has pulled away.
More often than not, timing―good or bad— means little in the grand scheme of things. But every once in a while, timing can totally change a person's life. This last scenario is the premise of this most unusual film.
We pick up the story in the spring of 1940, just days before the German Occupation. Inside a synagogue somewhere in Paris, Maxim Grimberg (a name he will later change to "Grimbert"), an athletically-gifted, ruggedly handsome fellow, is about to wed Hannah, his soft-spoken, non-athletic but adoring bride-to-be.
Moments before the ceremony, Hannah’s brother Robert and his well-toned, beautiful blond wife, Tania, rush in. Introducing their mates, Hannah and Robert innocently brag about their spouse’s virtues (Robert: "She’s a swimmer." Hannah: "Maxim’s won wrestling"), unaware of the instant and overwhelming attraction between the two.
The tale is told in retrospect by a thirty-something François (Mathieu Amalric), son of Maxim and Tania. No misprint, he is Tania's child. Early on, François realizes that he can never live up to his father's dreams, and yearns to know what brought about the seemingly impenetrable wedge that forged itself between them from the first. His quest for the truth ultimately leads to questions answered and secrets revealed.
Though this is basically a war-time saga, Grimbert’s script spans several decades, zigzagging back and forth in time from the early 1940s to the mid 1980s. Turning a basic cinematic device on its head, cinematographer Gérard de Battista calls up the past in rich brushes of Technicolor, while filming the present day in black and white.
The device works, as we are treated to lush representations of a courting life that, in many cases, is enhanced and idealized by the young Grimbert's imagination. Attention to detail is evident in every frame, thanks in large part to costumer Jacqueline Bouchard and production designer Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko. A 1950s swimming pool sequence is particularly rich in spirit and authenticity.
The casting is equally stunning, in that both Patrik Briel (Maxime) and C’ecile De France (Tania) are athletic, strong and good-looking. DeFrance’s Tania reminds me of a young Sharon Stone minus the tough, intentionally sexy edge, while Briel’s Maxime is reminiscent of Yves Montand in his prime. And, like Montand in his prime, Briel is wildly popular in France, both as a singer and actor.
As the waif-like bride-to-be Hannah, Ludivine Sagnier is the perfect counterpoint to De France’s athletically-gifted Tania. Dressed down to look like a pleasant but average-looking young woman, she looks nothing like the sexy savvy Julie she portrayed in Francois Ozon’s film, Swimming Pool.
And speaking of Julies, Julie Depardieu, as long-time family friend and confidant, Louise, provides a quiet but strong note to this complex and engrossing tale. She is, as it turns out, a keeper of secrets, one of which, is her own.
While the war (including the Holocaust) is in itself a character in this piece, there are only a few stock shots of actual warfare, and virtually no concentration camp footage. What we do see is the inevitable impact that history had on the Grimberg's life long after the war was won.
In less gifted hands, A Secret could have easily warped into a heavy-handed soap opera. It is only because Grimbert and director Claude Miller chose to address the major issues with subtlety and restraint that the film is as good as it is.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few exquisite and emotionally-charged moments. One scene in particular stands out, as Maxime views a lake-bound Tania from his bedroom windows. I can still see him rushing from sill to sill to catch a fleeting glance of her, much as Boris Pasternak's distraught poet raced frantically up the stairs to the rooftop window of his ice castle to watch the ill-fated Lara ride away with Victor Komarovsky in Dr. Zhivago.
As I read over these notes, I realize that I haven’t told you much about the actual plot of this incredible film, but to tell you more would rob you of some of its most engrossing and thought-provoking moments. What I can say, is that A Secret explores the way everyday people react in times of war...how they deal with loss or the possibility of loss, and love, and hope. The fact that it is based on a real family - Grimbert's family - makes it all the more relevant. A Secret is an extraordinary film. I urge you to see it.