‘A Secret’: Never Safe
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“A Secret,” the French director Claude Miller’s new film, opens with a mesmerizing little scene set in the summer of 1955. A skinny, squinting boy (Valentin Vigourt) trails his mother, Tania (Cécile de France), across the lawn of a posh country club outside Paris. A goddess in a white bathing cap, she slices toward the pool through the crowd of bronzed bodies. She climbs the ladder up to the diving board, and as he watches her from below, she dives, as easily and elegantly as she might let down her hair.
This childhood memory in the mind of François Grimbert (Mathieu Amalric) sums up the sense of awe and distance he has often felt toward his parents. They are a handsome couple, we see in repeated flashbacks, but not a particularly happy one, and young François’s physical weakness is a constant source of disappointment to his gym-obsessed father, Maxime (Patrick Bruel). Only when he is a teenager does François learn, from a relative (Julie Depardieu), that his parents are survivors of the Holocaust, and that their union only came about because another family was torn apart.
The film’s non-chronological jumble of flashbacks — François as a teenager, François as a child, François’s parents before he was born, and the brief, black-and-white interludes of François as an adult to which the film keeps circling back — makes “A Secret” more jumbled than it needs to be. At times, the film, which opens Friday at IFC Center, feels like an incomplete adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert on which it is based, a fussy trimming of the book’s layered narrative, rather than a true distillation of it.
But Mr. Miller’s film is powerful enough both to overcome these structural flaws and to dull any quibbles about the familiarity of the context. Near the end, François divides Holocaust survivors into mourners and non-mourners, and “A Secret” movingly tells the story of two especially attractive examples of the latter. They aren’t saints or martyrs, and they’re all the more interesting for it.
After the war, Maxime changes the family name. He and Tania have François baptized, instructing him not to tell his grandfather. But Maxime, François comes to learn, was never very attached to his Judaism to begin with. In prewar flashback scenes, he detests Yiddish and is less drawn to his wife, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) — “a real yiddishe mama,” as a relative approvingly notes at their wedding — than he is to Tania, the blue-eyed fashion model married to Hannah’s brother. Once he sees her dive, his infatuation is complete.
Tania holds out admirably in the face of his unabashed pursuit, but Hannah views her as complicit, and during the family’s flight from Paris she commits an act that condemns Tania and Maxime to a lifetime of guilt. François’s low birth weight almost seems a consequence of their anguished state, a pathetic reflection of how little they have left.
“A Secret” doesn’t judge them for these actions, per se — it lets their extended family do that — but it does explore the confusing effects of their disavowal of their past on François, who insists he has an imaginary brother and one day goes berserk, without knowing why, on a classmate who mocks a Holocaust lesson.
The ways in which people attempt to fill voids — opened by tragedy or regular old feelings of inadequacy — are of compelling interest to Mr. Miller, a veteran director who has never won renowned for himself outside of France. “Alias Betty,” his 2001 adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, was about a mother who tries to replace her dead son with another. In “A Secret,” François’s inferiority complex (like the quivering pool scene) has roots in Mr. Miller’s 1985 film “L’Effrontée,” in which Charlotte Gainsbourg played a coltish teenager without a mother.
Perhaps no scene in “A Secret” is more poignant than the one in which Maxime is turned away from the country club during the Occupation. How can they exclude a man who made a religion of everything the club stands for, and a woman who dives so beautifully? Maxime, in old age, can’t help but blame himself for tragedies that occurred during the Holocaust. But his imperfections are of an entirely different order than the evil behind him. As François tries to convince him later, “only Nazi hatred was to blame.”