24 May 2008

Hannah's Choice

The last Mathieu Almaric film I saw was Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, which I really enjoyed and not because Almaric was so sexy as Jean-Dominique Bauby in his former life. Like Le S et le P, Un Secret also features flashbacks and voiceovers by Almaric's character, but while in the former, the character in question is a prisoner of his present circumstances, in the latter, his character is a prisoner of past secrets.

The Arts Picturehouse's description of Un Secret is carefully coy about the titular secret, although if they were so concerned about ruining the secret, they might have been more careful with the disclaimer: "contains moderate sexualised nudity and Holocaust images." The last French Holocaust film I watched was Louis Malle's superb and painful Au Revoir les Enfants, the story of Jewish boy being hidden at a French boarding school in World War Two, which we watched one tearful Monday afternoon in double French during the upper sixth. More poignant still is that Malle based the film on his own experiences at a French boarding school, never mind that this was hardly likely to be a rare experience.

Un Secret is in many ways much more complicated than Au Revoir les Enfants, because it's not simply the story of a single, nuclear Jewish family in Nazi-occupied France, and each of the main characters makes choices that remind us that people often behave irrationally and over-emotionally when faced with betrayal, even when the betrayers are supposed to be on the same side as the betrayees in this awful game called war.

Almaric plays François, a man in his late thirties who, interestingly, narrates in black and white. He receives a call from a family friend telling him that his father has disappeared from his Parisian flat and so he ventures back to Paris to try to find him. On the way, he has a series of extensive flashbacks, which are all vivid with colour (the blonde hair of his mother, Tania, the gorgeous turquoise of the swimming pool, and so on), and in which he tells the story of his family.

François, aged seven, is a sickly child who is a constant disappointment to his athletic father. His mother is a champion swimmer and diver and so François constantly feels like the odd one out and so comes to invent an imaginary older brother who is just like a stronger, more athletic version of himself - a version of himself that might please his father more. Papa overreacts somewhat to the discovery that François has an imaginary friend who is his older brother, and then overreacts again when François unearths an old soft toy from a suitcase in the attic. Maman is more sympathetic to her son but still tends to side with her husband.

Eight years later, François is still shy, quiet and thin but he is at least having more luck with the ladies, although his father is less impressed that François' girlfriend is named Rebecca. The family is Jewish but Maxime (Papa) is in serious denial and prefers to pretend he has nothing to do with Judaism, and has François baptised. One day at school, though, François is watching a documentary about the Holocaust - one which is pretty graphic, and one of his classmates starts making jokes, causing gentle François to beat the crap out of him (later when being chided by his father, you get the impression that Daddy Dearest is actually glad that his son had the capability to "act like a man"). François won't say why he did it, but eventually he tells family friend (Louise - the same one who calls 1985-François), which leads her to finally tell him the horrific secrets held by his family history.

Flashback to pre-WWII France and it's Maxime's wedding day. Only, he's marrying Hannah, played by Ludivine "Swimming Pool" Sagnier, who looks good as a redhead. Just before they say their vows, Hannah introduces Maxime to her brother Robert...and his wife Tania. The chemistry is obvious from the start, although Tania at least makes an effort to conceal it and Hannah is too caught up in wedding day excitement to notice. Oh, and it's a big Jewish wedding and Maxime is really starting to look as though he had met Tania a little earlier. Shortly afterwards, along comes a son - a big, strong, healthy son called Simon, who is a born athlete and the apple of his father's eye. Unfortunately for Hannah, it is an eye that likes to wander, especially when Tania is around, and eventually even Hannah notices.

Tensions are rising, not least because of the German occupation, and Hannah and Maxime's different takes on Judaism - Hannah is proud of her heritage and doesn't want to hide, whereas Maxime happily hides his, considering himself French above Jewish. It doesn't help that Tania likes to parade around in her swimming costume, doing increasingly complicated dives when Maxime is around; nor does it help that Simon adores Tania.

Eventually, it becomes too dangerous to stay in Paris and Family Friend Louise knows some people who own a little cottage in the country, in a part of France not occupied by the Nazis and plans are made for the whole extended family - Maxime, Hannah, Simon, Tania, Louise and some other friends - to go into hiding there (Tania's husband is off fighting and/or held prisoner by this stage). Maxime and one of the men go down first, on a reccy, and Hannah and Louise will come with Simon later on. They have some fake papers made up so they can get across the border and Simon is very excited about his train journey.

Tania, meanwhile, has, at Maxime's invitation, arrived at the cottage, which, with its people working the land, preparing communal dinners, and bathing in the stream together, is pretty much an Edenic, hippy commune. Tania and Maxime frolic a little, in the river and in the garden, but Tania fends off Maxime's implications. Only, he then makes the error of writing to tell Hannah that the house is ready for her to bring Simon - "oh, and by the way, Tania's here too." This changes everything and suddenly, all sorts of events spiral out of control and go awfully, tragically wrong.

Un Secret is not a happy film but nor is it a terribly maudlin film. It is tightly and powerfully acted by a good cast who together unveil the awfulness of the decisions people make - both in and out of wartime situations - and of the totally unexpected consequences that can result from casual utterances or actions. The characters' varied and variable takes on notions of family, love, betrayal, jealousy, regret and revenge work just as well outside of the film's historical context as within it.

I didn't come out crying, just with a deep sense of sadness, which, thanks to the achronological plot was dully painful. Often, what wasn't said - or, at least, what the audience didn't hear said - was acuter than the dialogue. When Maxime turns up at the swimming pool with Simon - the same pool he has been visiting for years - when the owner stops him at the gate and talks to him, the camera pulls back and we can't hear what she is saying and yet we know that she is telling him they can't go in because they are Jewish; for Maxime, who has longed so much to reject his Jewishness, this is a terrible blow and for us to not hear the owner tell him he can't go in is all the more sad.

I definitely want to see La Vita è Bella now, which I have somehow managed to avoid watching thus far; I like starkly contrasting pairs of films, and it seems that La Vita è Bella will contrast well with Un Secret (and with Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, in the way the central character in each makes great use of his fantastic imagination). On the other hand, maybe I'll just go for some crystal skull action that doesn't require too many brain cells, next time, instead...

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