A Secret

October, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Harsha Wardhan

Starring:Robert Olding, Jessica Landon, Amy Ripley, Danielle Bitton, Carrie Lazar

In 2004, French psychoanalyst Philippe Grimbert won the prestigious Prix Goncourt des Lyceens award for his book exploring the guilt and repressed memory his family suffered when it was sundered by the Nazi invasion of France in WW II. Though it forms only a microcosm of that much larger tragedy, the evisceration of Grimbert’s family forms the basis of this achingly personal film by the accomplished screenwriter/director Claude Miller. He’s created a universally-applicable examination of the price paid by Holocaust survivors for their success in escaping it; in doing so, the director forces Gentile audiences to confront anew the extent of Jewish suffering and what it’s meant to the descendents of those lost. A Secret is beautiful, profound…and absolutely heartbreaking.  

Miller’s saga begins in the adolescent years of shy, vulnerable Francois, (Mathieu Amalric) then zigzags through time to arrive at the twilight years of his parents, Max and Tania, (Patrick Bruel and Cecile De France). Summoned one day by his distraught mother to search for his aged father, Francois scours the streets of Paris reliving the time when he discovered the secret his parents successfully hid from him until he unearthed it at age 15. By the time Francois finds his father huddled in an oversized topcoat on a park bench, the audience has traveled, via flashbacks, to the period from the mid-1930’s to the present, witnessing the disintegration of the extended Grinberg family from which Max detached himself by changing the spelling of his name. The secret Francois uncovers involves thwarted desire, a mother’s suffocating love for her only child and the mutually-agreed upon suppression of memories involving the family’s forced separation and the losses which flowed from it. As father and son finally confront each other in the park,  Secret vividly demonstrates how the past not only haunts the present, but promises to shape the future as well.

Nominated for 10 Cesar awards, (France’s Oscars) in acting, writing,  cinematography, costume design, editing and direction, Secret delivers its most impressive achievement by presenting the flashback scenes in vivid color while bathing the contemporary ones in washed-out black and white hues, suggesting that the emotional quality of the Grimbert’s lives in the post-war period have faded to near oblivion. 

Amalric, so extraordinary as the paralyzed writer in Diving Bell and the Butterfly, again employs his expressive face to wordlessly convey the cost of burdens carried with no promise of relief, while De France and Bruel trace a relationship that evolves from near-obsessive sexual attraction to pinched mutual determination in avoiding any confrontation with their own past. But it’s Julie Depardieu, (daughter of the internationally-known Gerard Depardieu) as Louise, Max’s first love, who gives the film its best performance and most heart-rending moment; this 35 year old actress with nearly 60 film appearances in her 14 year career steals this movie even as her impulsive actions provide the heart of the film and forever burden the lives of those she loves.

In this post-Tarantino era when non-liner storytelling has become an overworked cliché, Secret’s initially-convoluted scenes and frenetic shifting from black and white to full color powerfully underscore the unspeakable sadness which can flow from the choices innocent people make when they’re suddenly stripped of the privilege of controlling over their lives. 

Good movies entertain and great ones instruct; classics illuminate. 

The verdict on this one? A classic.

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