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:: Un Secret

What did you do in the war Daddy…?

In a boiled-sweet bright French resort of the 1950’s, among the striped red and white umbrellas and unfeasibly blue water of a communal pool, a small boy marvels at the athleticism of his swimming-champion mother and gymnastic father, at once awed and appalled by their prowess and conspicuous physical perfection.

His fascination with his parents and his own sense of inadequacy leads Francois (Mathieu Amalric) to concoct an elaborate fictional world for himself, imagining a fairytale back-history to his parents’ relationship, and creating a brother, who unlike Francois, can fulfill his parents’ wishes and ambitions. A conversation with an old family friend however yields a rather different and ‘secret’ history, one that blurs the clear binaries of Francois’ world, as the notions of Jew and Gentile, persecutor and persecuted, and inevitably truth and fiction themselves become uncertain.

The Second World War Film has inevitably provided the same template for today’s filmmakers that the Napoleonic drama, Roman epic, or the Western did in previous eras: a boil-in-the-bag formula for credible conflict and intensity of emotion. While at its best the genre has produced (and continues to produce) some outstanding and original films, its sheer ubiquity has robbed it of some of its integrity and ideological weight. Claude Miller’s latest offering eschews more grandiose military or political dramas, instead maintaining a minutely domestic focus that dares to complicate the frequently one-dimensional notion of ‘Jewishness’ during this period.

Spanning almost fifty years, from the 1930’s through to the 1980’s, this family saga emerges in a series of tantalizingly fragmented episodes and flashbacks that move from the technicolour certainty and character archetypes of Francois’ 1950’s childhood, back to the more muted ambiguity of Louise’s wartime memories, and forward again to a strangely lifeless black-and-white present day. The decision to reverse the conventional technique of presenting historical scenes in black-and-white and contemporary action in colour may sound like a gimmick, but works surprisingly well in directing the viewer’s attention to the real focus of the action, and articulating the frequent temporal shifts that punctuate the film.

At the centre of the film’s ‘secret’ is the relationship between Francois’ father Maxime (an appropriately and forcibly masculine Patrick Bruel) and the two very different women he loves: statuesque and reserved Tania (Cecile de France) and warmly exuberant Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier). Their differing approaches to their shared Jewish heritage bring an additional dimension to Maxime’s struggle, as he must choose not merely between women but between different versions of himself and his faith.

Miller exploits the very distinct physical presences of Sagnier and de France, successfully creating two equally appealing yet entirely dissimilar women. Sagnier in particular commands our attention in a role that sees her move away from the self-confident seductress that she has all but patented, (Swimming Pool, Moliere), in a character whose passions though no less intense are of a much more introverted nature. It is Hannah’s almost inexplicable decision that provokes the tragedy at the work’s core, a decision that must appear both extreme and inevitable if the film is to succeed. The conviction and coherence of development that Sagnier brings to her part allows this difficult effect to come off, and endows this domestic drama of one family’s secret with more explosive force than the bloodiest of battles scenes.