September 10, 2008
‘A Secret’ lets French director explore his Jewish past
The latest entry is "A Secret" and it posits that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, not only among the perpetrators and collaborators, but also among the Jewish survivors.
The complex movie, in which the past, shot in color, is more vivid that the black-and-white present, follows the fate of a French Jewish family in the pre-war 1930s, the German occupation and the decades after liberation.
As told through the eyes of Francois, successively a 7-year old boy, a teenager and a middle-aged man, the narrative introduces his father, Maxime (Algerian Jewish pop idol Patrick Bruel); glamorous mother, Tania (Cecile de France); and their extended Jewish family.
Francois is a solitary, introspective child, exposed to the barely concealed contempt of his muscular, bodybuilding father, who fantasizes the company of an older brother, more assertive and athletic than himself.
Then, when Francois is 15, a relative reveals the dark family secret of the film's title. How, shortly before the war, Maxime married his first wife, Hannah, and on his wedding day fell in love with the beautiful blonde Tania, a guest at the nuptials.
How Maxime and Hannah had a sturdy son, Simon, how Maxime fled to unoccupied Vichy France, to be followed by Hannah, Simon, and two other relatives, with forged "Aryan" papers.
At the border, French police inspected the papers, alert to arrest any Jews and turn them over to the Germans. At that point, a jealous and despondent Hannah made the fateful decision that would alter the family history forever.
Amid the constantly shifting scenes of past and present, there are moments of ordinary bourgeois family life, alternating with Jewish humiliation and fear under the occupation. Some Jews wear the yellow Star of David, others take it off and work on the other side.
"A Secret," which has been a considerable box-office success in France, despite harsh criticism by some leading newspapers, owes its creation to two French Jews whose own stories reflect much of the film's plotline.
One is Philippe Grimbert, a psychoanalyst, who wrote "Un Secret" as a semi-autobiographical novel, which, to his surprise, became a best seller in Europe.
The other is Claude Miller, a veteran director, who worked for 10 years with the iconic Francois Truffaut.
Miller was born in 1942 in the French countryside, where his family was in hiding, and remembered a bookish, solitary childhood, much like that of Francois in the movie.
Grimbert, who has a small role in the movie, and Miller both recall muscular fathers who resented their own Jewishness, with Miller's father telling him after the war to "just forget being Jewish."
This experience is reflected in the film, when Maxime insists that young Francois be baptized.
"A Secret" marks the first time that Miller, who is not a favorite of French critics, has dealt on film with his own Jewish background.
However, other French directors have frequently shaken their countrymen's self-imposed forgetfulness about their forefathers' role in World War II and the myth that all were heroic resistance fighters.
Some of these films have become classics, starting in 1955 with "Night and Fog" by Alain Resnais, a documentary on concentration camps, followed in 1969 by Marcel Ophuls' "The Sorrow and the Pity," which explored the motivations of both resistors and collaborators.
In 1974, Louis Malle's "Lacombe, Lucien" drew a portrait of a young French collaborator, and in 1987 his "Au Revoir les Enfants" recalled the roundup of Jewish children hidden in a Catholic boarding school.
The story is not yet finished, as witnessed by the remarkable success of "Suite Francaise," a newly discovered novel about Parisians fleeing the Nazi conquest, by Irene Nemirovsky, who perished in Auschwitz.
"A Secret" opens Sept. 12 at Laemmle's Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, and on Sept. 19 at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.
The trailer -- French with English subtitles