Half a century ago, André Bazin proposed that, among other factors, the freedom of the spectator to choose, was better stimulated when scenes were composed with depth of field. This effect attracts the attention towards other objects in the picture that interact in the same space with others that are closer to the camera. As spectators, we spontaneously assign different connotations to these visual relations.
French director Claude Miller’s extraordinary A Secret (Un secret) tackles with courage the sinuous terrain of uncertainty through editing that invites speculation, and a narrative rhythm that brings the story to life. The childhood anxiety experienced by Philippe, the only child of a Jewish family, when he feels the inexplicable presence of a non-present brother, announces from the beginning — with the out of focus and shadowy silhouette of a boy diving into a pool — the nebulous prism that will be used for the tale. Anxiety that is boosted by the contrast of an opposing image that is also the most repeated in the film: the colorful sensuality of Tania, the mother of Philippe (played by a brilliant Cécile de France), wearing a swimsuit and jumping into the water. A dream object of male desire and the trigger of the action during the film, which noticeably troubles Philippe, as shown during a dialogue with a school girl friend at the beach.
Miller’s stylized direction does not fall into the void of the obvious, because both the beauty of the composition and the dreamy framing bring into view other attractions. Thus, the ability of the director is revealed in the accurate grasp of the tempo in each sequence: a rhythm that adds to the confusion instead of offering absolute truths. It is the case when Philippe lays a dish on the table for his imaginary brother. Maxime (Patrick Bruel), his forceful father, initially rejects this impulse fiercely but then swiftly changes to a paternal plea for family unity. A synchrony that is also present when an adolescent Philippe, after hearing the revelation of the secret, enters his home and the camera takes us back to the time of the “other child” with a simple pan to the window; a temporal jump in the action, that does not depart from the realism of the mise-en-scène.
Disturbing moments take this work of art into dimensions that go beyond the usual stereotypes of the Jewish victims of the Second World War. More so, when the pain and desperation are much more linked to the desires and guilt of the pre-Nazi occupation of France, and to a lesser degree, to the communal sense of self-preservation. An intimate but at the same time anonymous story. Nearly a whisper, as when Philippe listens the revealing words of Louise (Julie Depardieu), the friend of his parents who cracks the barrier between knowledge and ignorance when she confirms the reality of the boy’s nightmares. The past is reconstructed from this half-truth, as often happens with every rumor over the origin of an old love. Unknowns that gradually tighten the thread of a drama that goes back to the times before Philippe’s birth, when Maxime was married to Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) who bore him a son. But, Maxime became obsessed with Tania, the sophisticated friend of Hannah.
This flashback apparently explains the plot of film, but, in reality, it only offers fuzzy clues. Even at the peak of the narrative, when the twist occurs, it is impossible to assimilate the moral repercussions and the complexity of the projected emotions. Nobody knows the true reason of Hannah’s conduct, but her decision adds new shades to the meaning of family to the story, a question that haunts Philippe since the beginning. In this context, the scenes happen as mirages, as illusions that are as imprecise as the layers of oblivion in the memory of Maxime in his old age, who is shown in parallel with an adult Philippe, in nostalgic black and white.
The deception of memories, because of their inability to capture what was lived, is an idea that Miller subtly deals with during the epilogue. It is related to the act of collecting objects associated with emotions that we are loath to forget, such as objects and animals that contain those feelings that we believe do not to exist anymore. Feelings that, at the end, the director pushes to the limit.