To the ever-expanding roster of films that treat of the Holocaust in an oblique but affecting way one can add Claude Miller’s adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s novel, which reveals, in a fragmented, elliptical fashion, the emotional devastation of a French Jewish family by the Nazi occupation of the country.
“Un Secret” basically follows the uncovering of his family’s past by Francois, played at age seven by Valentin Vigourt, fourteen by Quentin Dubuis, and as a man by Mathieu Amalric. The film begins in 1985 in black-and-white, as Francois, a counselor of disturbed youngsters, is informed of the disappearance of his father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) after his dog is killed on the roadway. The episode leads him to recall the family dynamic of thirty years earlier, when he was a weak, timid lad with far more robust parents—Maxime, a body-builder, and Tania (Cecile de France), a swimmer—and an imaginary brother whom he saw as more athletically inclined and extroverted than he. Through family friend Louise (Julie Depardieu), a massage therapist, he learns that he did in fact once have a half-brother, the much-loved Simon (Orlando Nicoletti), Maxime’s son by his first wife Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), a far mousier woman than Tania.
As the entire story comes out in bits and pieces, Maxime found himself drawn to his sister-in-law Tania even at their first meeting at his wedding, but it wasn’t until the outbreak of war, when her husband was captured during fighting on the front, that their attraction deepened, causing a rift between Maxime and Hannah even though both doted on the exuberant, outgoing Simon. After the Nazi invasion, Maxime overcame his refusal to believe the danger posed by anti-Semitism in France to admit the necessity of escaping across the border. But though he, Louise and their friends Esther (Nathalie Boutefeu) and George (Yves Jacques) succeeded, Hannah and Simon did not—and the reason behind their failure to do so—and their fate—have cast a pall over Maxime, Tania and Francois ever since.
In building their script, Miller and Natalie Carter have adopted a structure that shifts from time to time with great skill, allowing the narrative to expand naturally and develop moving emotional layers as it does so, and Miller’s sensitive, unforced direction teases out the currents without descending into mawkishness. He also draws excellent performances—not only by Bruel, De France, Sagnier, Depardieu and Amalric, from whom one would expect good work, but from young Nicoletti, Vigourt and Dubuis as well. The supporting cast is also fine, and the technical side of the picture is equally strong, with production designer Jean-Pierre Johut-Svelko and costume designer Jacqueline Bouchard fashioning an evocative period atmosphere and cinematographer Gerard de Battista capturing it with style but without fussiness. Zbigniew Preisner’s unobtrusive score adds to the film’s sense of modesty and lack of melodrama.
Avoiding histrionics and overstatement, “Un Secret” reveals a story about a family’s past suffering that may not be unique, but in this telling is quietly powerful.