Based on Philippe Grimbert’s fact-inspired novel, “Un secret” is a fine drama that stands as Gallic vet Claude Miller’s best in at least a decade. Oft-traveled narrative terrain of a Jewish family torn asunder during France’s WWII occupation is rendered fresh by a complex flashback structure that spans half a century and maintains suspense over key developments until the final reels. Impressive cast should help lend prestige item legs when it’s released in October later this fall; offshore sales prospects look bright.
In a black-and-white 1985, Francois (Mathieu Amalric) is an anxious-looking Parisian who’s informed his elderly father has gone missing. This triggers flashbacks to 1955, when he was a shy, sickly kid (Valentin Vigourt), intimidated by two conspicuously robust parents: erstwhile champion swimmer Tania (Cecile de France) and gymnastically inclined Maxime (Patrick Bruel). While both strain to exert patient understanding, it’s clear enough to Francois that he is a disappointment, especially to dad.
The boy’s best friend is Louise (Julie Depardieu), who runs her massage business across the lane from the family’s clothing shop. Francois also has an imaginary brother who’s everything he’s not — fearless and athletic. Discovering a toy in the attic that mysteriously upsets his parents, Francois pulls the long-hidden truth out of Louise: He once had a half-brother, and his parents didn’t come together under the idyllic circumstances he’s fancied, but rather amid terrible tragedy and guilt.
Prewar scenes find Maxime engaged to another: fetching Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), whose parents view Hitler’s rising power with great foreboding. The groom, however, considers himself French above all, barely acknowledging his Jewish heritage and expecting society to follow suit. At his own wedding, Maxime can’t help but ogle blonde beauty Tania, who’s just as physically vigorous as himself — and, to Tania’s considerable embarrassment, the attraction is mutual.
Nonetheless, life goes on more or less as planned — soon including Maxime and Hannah’s child Simon (Orlando Nicoletti) — until the Nazis invade.
Telescoping the considerable spiral of events in Grimbert’s prize-winning tome (set to be published Stateside early next year) into a sleek, cogent mosaic of brief scenes, Miller is in top form. Direction and screenplay let the multitiered narrative’s emotions emerge without need for melodramatic flourishes. Particularly vivid is the adulterous erotic charge between the leads, though it’s seldom more than a matter of fleeting glances.
Thesps are first-rate, including several Miller regulars. Handsome production package emphasizes the good life of prewar and several-years-postwar Paris (as well as the beauty of the countryside during farm sequences), with special mention due Jacqueline Bouchard’s stylish period costumes and Gerard de Battista’s attractive, occasionally lyrical lensing. Editor Veronique Lange’s work is a model of delicacy and concision.
Pic shared the Grand Prix of the Americas prize at the Montreal Fest with Belgian debut feature “Ben X.”