There’s plenty for both the eyes and intellect to groove over in “Secret Things,” a taut, juicy, low-key feast of sexual and office politics filtered through helmer Jean-Claude Brisseau’s customary blend of expedient formality and all-stops-out baroque behavior. Savvy distribs should be able to attract niche auds with this casually suspenseful arthouse fare that comes to a nifty conclusion a notch beyond what viewers may expect.
Brisseau’s amusing dip into female self-actualization and the ways of libertinage is probably closer to what educated viewers were hoping for when they bought tickets to “Eyes Wide Shut” or were suckered into the half-baked gibberish of pics like “Romance” or “Baise-moi.” Censors outside Gaul may be confused, as the film definitely aims to titillate at the same time as being unquestionably serious in its artistic intent.
Told in voiceover by Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), the delectably twisted fable centers on two penniless but shapely young women who set out to better their social station by manipulating men. Subsequent antics pretty much fulfil the promise announced by the compelling sight of a woman named Natalie (Coralie Revel) striding from bed to chair to floor wearing nothing but spike heels as she pleasures herself with convincing abandon.
Although the sequence is staged and lit like a highbrow avant-garde ballet, it turns out Natalie is one of the star attractions at a Paris bar-cum-club for co-ed auds, where the younger, less experienced Sandrine tends bar. When Natalie protectively informs Sandrine she’s not obliged to sleep with customers unless she wants to, the owner tosses both women on the street.
As Sandrine is behind on her rent, Natalie invites her to sleep at her place. Over a bottle of champagne, Sandrine envies Natalie’s skill at provoking onlookers’ desire and the fact that Natalie has experienced the most powerful orgasms of her life while on stage alone. Sandrine, who’d like to be able to let herself go while others watch, has always faked sexual climax with her boyfriends.
After Natalie talks Sandrine through a pleasant bout of masturbation, she invites the younger woman to move in with her, each making it clear that they’re not lesbians. (“I’m not a lesbian.” “Neither am I.”) Woven into a series of unsuccessful job interviews are such antics as les girls surreptitiously removing their underwear while seated in a metro station before dashing off to have their first bout of sex together in an alcove beside the tracks.
All this is just training for their real goal: bagging wealthy guys. Sexual satisfaction can be achieved solo but men at one’s mercy are the sole keys to serious cash.
When Sandrine and Natalie are both hired by a large firm, their machinations start in earnest. After Natalie’s advice on what makes men tick, Sandrine sets her sights on the company’s co-founder, 50-year-old family man Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), who falls hard. He’s just a stepping stone to the main founder’s dashing son, Christophe (Fabrice Deville), whose reputation as a cruel seducer includes the fact that two of his discarded conquests set fire to themselves after he tossed them aside.
Film scholars will find ample material here for essays on money, class and power but — hallelujah! — pic can also be read and enjoyed as a formally constructed but supple tale of two babes on the make. Instead of casting professional porno actors, Brisseau (“Workers for the Good Lord,” “The Black Angel,” “Sound and Fury”) has chosen attractive thesps who are willing to get naked for the demands of the story, so the solo, girl-on-girl and three-way encounters that pepper the tale play nicely and are never vulgar. Perfs by the relatively unknown cast consistently keep the script’s semi-outrageous developments in the realm of the plausible.
Pic is technically modest but comes up with exactly the right details in the right doses to convey workaday comfort or sumptuous wealth. Lensing is effective, and low on distracting flourishes. Music, always bold and classical, surges forth as classy punctuation.