French filmmakers seem to remain as obsessed as ever with the German occupation of France during World War II. As one French friend of mine remarked recently, from the number of films about the subject, you would think that the vast majority of the French were involved in the Resistance rather than the other way round.
Claude Miller’s adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s novel Un Secret is refreshing in that it concerns a Jewish family’s denial of its past rather than the brave deeds of French Resistance fighters. It focuses on the character François (played as an adult by Mathieu Amalric), and we slowly discover the secrets of his family’s past as he does. The young François’s fantasy of having an older brother turns out to be less imaginary than it seemed at first, as he finds out more about the earlier lives of his parents Maxime and Tania (respectively played by Patrick Bruel and Cécile de France).
The first half of the film is particularly effective, as the suspense is maintained while François’s early and later life is negotiated in a series of flashbacks and fast-forwards. The pace of this beautifully shot film begins to flag, however, once we discover that each of François’s parents was previously involved in another relationship. The fact that we know that the two will get together neutralizes the tension leading up to their eventual relationship. Moreover, it is ludicrous to think that Maxime’s first wife (played by Ludivine Sagnier) might plausibly sacrifice herself and her child simply because she saw Maxime and Tania looking tenderly at each other.
The acting is uniformly good, as might be expected from such a starry line-up, but Miller would have maintained narrative interest far more effectively had he not spent so much time showing Cécile de France diving elegantly from high springboards into the water. The ending, with François appearing with his own child, is mawkishly predictable.