Holocaust redux

Claude Miller themes the historical stain with some tact and family drama

Jan 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Leave it to the French to show Hollywood how to tastefully handle the Holocaust. While far from perfect, Claude Miller's affecting and intimate family drama captures the complexities and challenges of being a Jew in France in the run-up to World War II. Touching on themes of identity, guilt and survival, it's an old-fashioned tale that occasionally goes overboard on stylistic flourishes but deftly jumps back and forth in time as it layers on a family's secret history.

It's the 1950s and teenager François (Quentin Dubuis) discovers that his perfect parent's relationship — both attractive athletes — isn't quite what he thought. Not only is his father disappointed in his son's lack of physical prowess, which is rooted in a heartbreaking past, François' fantasies of a phantom brother may be more than real. Wedged between his insecure and sickly adolescence and the impact of his discoveries as a 37-year-old man (Mathieu Amalric), most of A Secret's running time is spent unfurling his parents' (Cecile De France and Patrick Bruel) tragic history before and during the Nazi occupation of France. It's a complex, compassionate and unfamiliar view of the war and the decisions ordinary people were forced to make. It's also a meditation on the ironic impact of jealousy, lust and expectation, making clear that personal decisions can be as ruinous as the darkest world events.

Adjusting to Miller's rhythm takes time; the flash-forwards to François' adult story aren't as successful as the dense narrative found elsewhere, but what makes it all work is the how the film circles the truth — it draws you in and, occasionally, surprises. While it's never hard to see where the story's going, the detours and details are unexpected; accumulating revelations in such a way that the family's relationships become clearer and our empathy for the characters — particularly father Maxime — grow.

The wartime scenes brim with realism and carefully revealed plot turns suggest that personal histories are something to be teased out and contemplated rather than assumed. It's emotionally meaty stuff that's delicately rendered, without overheated passion or sentimentality. But its strength is also its weakness. By remaining impartial and balanced in its approach to every character (there's no one to connect to), A Secret keeps us at arm's length. We recognize the tragedy of all their fates but feel nothing more poignant than generalized empathy. More problematic is the lack of dramatic thrust. Miller's skillful direction can't compensate for the fact many character struggles remain internal and unspoken — their emotions never confronted. Luckily, the first-rate cast pours its energy into portraying the family's growing vortex of longing, self-doubt and guilt. In particular, Julie Depardieu impresses as a lifelong friend who sees everything but refuses to judge any one.

In the end, as all the pieces fall into place, it's hard not to be haunted by the impact of François' family story. It's even harder not to be impressed by Miller's restraint in tackling a morally complicated landscape. Avoiding the shameless melodrama and faux prestige of recent Holocaust dramas — in fact, the Holocaust has little direct presence in the film, instead looming on the horizon — A Secret is adult enough to recognize that even in the most tragic historical moments, our personal choices seal our fate.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 30 and 31, and at 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1. It also screens at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8. Call 313-833-3237 for more information.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].