(French and English dialogue)

(French and English dialogue)

With its unusually passionate sex scenes and emotionally draining, realistic drama, “The Secret” is a powerful, impossible-to-forget pic that reps a remarkably assured feature directorial debut for Gallic helmer Virginie Wagon. Pic recalls “Last Tango in Paris” with its tale of someone consumed by an intense sexual relationship with a stranger, but the significant twist is that the focus here is the woman. Powered by strong reviews and choice fest slots, “The Secret” will likely spark interest in the U.S., where the mix of steamy action and smart writing could be a winning combination, but the explicit sex may present some ratings headaches.

Though the subject matter is completely different, “The Secret” comes from the same naturalistic, psychologically searing school of filmmaking as “The Dreamlife of Angels,” which Wagon co-wrote. New pic is co-scripted by Wagon and “Dreamlife” helmer Erick Zonca.

Marie (Anne Coesens) at first appears to be living a fairly well-adjusted life. She sells encyclopedias door-to-door, a job she’s pretty good at and seems to enjoy. Home life is also looking all right. She has been married to Francois (Michel Bompoil) for 12 years, they have a 2-year-old boy, Paul (Quentin Rossi), and everyone gets along well.

But some cracks in the facade of familial bliss are beginning to appear. Francois is pushing for them to have a second child, but Marie is on the fence. When she finally decides against it, they have a bitter latenight argument that underlines the very different ways they see their futures.

Then, in the course of her job, she meets Bill (Tony Todd), a 50-year-old African-American who is living in a friend’s villa in Paris. At first, she’s a tad put off by his nonchalant, almost condescending attitude, but something keeps pulling her back. Soon enough, they’re in the midst of a torrid affair. She knows almost nothing about him, and he exhibits little curiosity about her life.

It’s clear that Marie is being driven by forces she can’t control, and one of the film’s strengths is the way it captures her horror toward her own behavior. There’s a real force to the scenes in which she returns home to her apartment after her meetings with Bill and, with great difficulty, has to segue from wild lovemaking to washing her little boy in the bathtub.

What also sets “The Secret” apart is that Wagon doesn’t take the obvious route. Traditional tales of marital infidelity usually involve attempts at concealment, but Marie is incapable of that. She simply walks in with love-bites and scratches all over her body and watches Francois’ devastated reaction.

The sex scenes are explicit but not exploitative, and, unlike last year’s much-hyped “Romance,” the erotic encounters are actually sexy, in large part because the pic approaches everything realistically.

It’s refreshing to see complex characters who change over the course of the pic. The three leads are all top-notch. Coesens, in particular, gives a rich performance, starting out as a cool, sophisticated professional and mother who gradually becomes a tormented figure. There’s no ignoring the grim determination in her eyes in the late going.

Bompoil succeeds in making Francois completely believable, playing him as the nice guy with a nasty edge.

Todd in some ways has the most difficult role because Bill’s character is deliberately given so little depth. He’s designed as a one-note enigma, but the noble-brute personality eventually becomes monotonous. The actor (perhaps best known for the “Candyman” series) compensates by providing a charismatic presence that has no shortage of erotic charge.

Pic goes for naturalistic feel with almost doculike lensing, use of real-life sound and virtually no music, until the final reel, which features a snippet of opera and Chuck Berry’s great wedding tune “You Never Can Tell.”

The Secret

(FRANCE)

Production

A Les Prods. Bagheera/France 3 Cinema/Diaphana Films production, in association with Canal Plus, Le Centre National de la Cinematographie, La Procirep, Sofica S. (International sales: Mercure Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Francois Marquis. Directed by Virginie Wagon. Screenplay, Wagon, Erick Zonca.

Crew

Camera (color), Jean-Marc Fabre; editor, Yannick Kergoat; music, Mercury Rev, Chuck Berry; art director, Brigitte Brassart; costume designer, Brigitte Slama; sound, Ludovic Henault; artistic collaboration, Erick Zonca; associate producer, Michel Saint Jean; casting, Jeanne Biras, Aude Cathelin, Antoine Carrard. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 17, 2000. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Marie ..... Anne Coesens Francois ..... Michel Bompoil Bill ..... Tony Todd Paul ..... Quentin Rossi Marie's Mother ..... Jacqueline Jehanneuf
With: Aladin Reibel, Valerie Vogt, Frederic Sauzay, Natalya Ermilova.
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