Sunday, June 7, 2009

Un Secret (Claude Miller, 2007)

Claude Miller’s Un Secret, based on Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel of the same name, concerns, as the title suggests, a family secret (in truth, more like a hundred secrets), and as many well-kept secrets go, it isn’t a flattering one. Thirty-seven-year old Francois Grimbert narrates in pensive voice-over his remembered childhood, the experiences of his parents before his birth, and how this withheld information has shaped his own identity and what he sees in hindsight.

There are several threads to this convoluted story. Before Francois is born, encompassing the Second World War. When Francois is 7 years old. When Francois is 14 years old. All intercut with the present, when Francois is 37 years old, in scenes shot curiously in monochrome. The rest of the film is in color. Why that is, one can merely speculate. Perhaps this seeming cleft is in need of healing and harmonization, resolution and reconciliation?

Plot is thick and verges on the sensational. Suffice to say that Un Secret is a tale of jealousy, guilt, revenge, infidelity, regret. And then some. It happens to involve Parisian Jews living before, during and after the Second World War. A further twist sees them, at least some of them, escaping to rural France.

At 7 years old, Francois is a frail boy who can never measure up to his athletic, well-built parents. His father, Maxime, is an accomplished gymnast, while his mother, Tania, is an admired platform diver. They seem to be perfect, too perfect, human specimens, cut from a different cloth next to him. He invents a robust imaginary brother, an equal of his parents, who strangely haunts him in his dreams. At this point, one obligatorily wonders: is he someone else’s son? The answer is no, and it is best left unsaid for those who intend to watch this film.

As twist piles on twist, told in one flashback after another, Francois will discover his Jewish roots, his parents’ reason for changing their tell-tale Jewish name. His parents' odyssey during the great war. There will also emerge the real reason for the spectral presence of a brother. There will also surface the names of Hannah and Robert and Simon, fellow Jews, not unrelated to each other and to the Grimbert family.

It is a creditable juggling act that writer-director Claude Miller achieves in Un Secret. The various plot threads, the many characters, are enough to confuse the casual viewer, but Miller paints a personalized yet sweeping canvas (with different film stocks, different colors) with aplomb and assurance. There is even enough time to insert gruesome newsreel of dead, emaciated Jews in mass graves. Un Secret, however, just stops short of melodrama: Miller balances restrained exposition and sentiment very well. It’s a film that will work well as a film on Jews, or as family drama. Almost too sensationalistic and too crowd-pleasing for its own good, Un Secret takes its place just beneath Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants and De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This pantheon needs to open a new wing fast.

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