Friday, September 05, 2008

Claude Miller’s Secret

Is it possible for children to inherit the guilt of their parents? It can certainly cause pain and long-term distortions of familial relationships. When family secrets involve post-Holocaust survivor’s guilt, the emotional fissures could cleave deeply, as is the case in Claude Miller’s A Secret (trailer here), opening today in New York.

François has a strained relationship with his father Maxime. Told in multiple flashbacks, we see the young François as a frail child, who appears to be a constant disappointment to his athletic father. To compensate for his feelings of inadequacy, he creates an imaginary brother, who is everything François is not. However, whenever he refers to the imaginary Simon, he is sternly rebuked by his father.

More than just a defense mechanism, Simon seems to fill a deeper void he does not fully understand. Eventually, a friend of the family reveals the truth to him—Simon was his flesh-and-blood half-brother, but he and his mother, Maxime’s first wife Hannah, perished in the concentration camps.

In a flashback within a flashback, we see that Maxime was not always such a distant father. With Simon he was the picture of paternal pride and affection. His fidelity as a husband is an altogether different matter. Though married to the adoring Hannah, his eye often wandered to her glamorous sister Tania, who is now his second wife and François’s mother. Maxime also causes great consternation by refusing to register as a Jew or to wear the yellow star. Many in their circle see it as a rejection of his Jewish faith and heritage, but as deportation of French Jews begins, Maxime is tragically vindicated.

Maxime the man of action sets about arranging passage for his family out of France, going ahead to prepare the way for Hannah and Simon. Yet simmering family resentments persist, resulting in a plot turn that is hard to believe, but that is sort of the point. It is a decision that is so difficult to accept, it literally haunts every character of the film, causing the toxic guilt that metastasizes throughout François’s family.

Secret can be a bit problematic, in that it addresses the Holocaust in very distant, antiseptic terms. Yet, that is by necessity, because much of the resulting anguish stems from uncertainty. Miller’s direction is deftly understated, leading the audience to a simple but honestly redemptive ending. The director elicits strong performances from his cast, including his three youthful actors, who are all credible and not at all cloying or irritating. As the adult François, Mathieu Amalric effectively serves as both the narrator and conscience of the film, and Patrick Bruel conveys the humanity of the tortured Maxime.

At its core, Secret is a story about family more than anything else, but it happens to be a family deeply scarred by the crimes of National Socialism. Miller is an under-appreciated director, who has crafted a highly literate body of films, like the Ruth Rendell adaptation Alias Betty. While perhaps requiring some patience during the early establishing scenes of family dysfunction, Secret is also a very impressive film that is definitely recommended. It opens today in New York at the Paris Theatre (which celebrates its 60th anniversary with free popcorn and soda for ticket holders on September 13th).