The trauma of childhood is a recurring theme in the cinema of director
Claude Miller and in Un secret
he revisits his own turbulent childhood in Nazi occupied France during
WWII. Adapted from an award-winning autobiographical novel by
Philippe Grimbert, the film follows the fortunes of a Jewish family
during the occupation, through the eyes of a character who might well
be Miller's alter ego. The father of the main character (played
by Patrick Bruel) has much in common with Miller's - both were
conflicted over their Jewish identity and both refused to wear the
yellow star badge which the Nazis insisted be worn at all times by Jews
before they were rounded up and shipped to the death camps.
Claude Miller himself only escaped the Holocaust by his father's
refusal to wear the yellow star. Un secret
is understandably one of
Miller's most personal films, although it is somewhat marred by the
director's increasing preoccupation with stylisation, which renders the
film needlessly arty in places.
Grimbert's excellent novel offers a compelling tale of love, betrayal
and identity under the Nazi Occupation, but Miller manages to reduce it
to a pretty soap-style saga, losing much of the darkness and bitter
irony of Grimbert's book. An overly complex narrative structure,
which attempts to weave together three time frames, weakens the film's
coherence and emotional intensity, and you can't help wondering that
the film might have had more power if the present-day sequences had
been excised, or at least reduced to a short coda. Recently,
there has been a veritable spate of films in France about the Holocaust
and Un secret
does little to
make it stand out from the crowd.
On the plus side, Un secret
is attractively shot and boasts a superb cast that includes such
talented performers as Cécile De France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine
Sagnier, Julie Depardieu and Mathieu Amalric. Owing mainly to
some lacklustre screenwriting, most of the characters are woefully
two-dimensional and struggle to engage our sympathies - the two
exceptions being those played by Ludivine Sagnier and Julie Depardieu,
who are both (as ever) devastatingly convincing in their respective
roles. Sagnier's character is particularly interesting and her
motivations for her self-destructive act of betrayal (or
is it a supreme act of love?) are very subtly
revealed by the actress, in a way that renders an otherwise pretty
meaningless film highly meaningful and profoundly shocking.
Although critical reaction to Un
on its first release was very mixed, it proved to be a
box office success, attracting an audience of 1.7 million in
France. It also notched up an impressive tally of eleven
nominations for the 2008 Césars, in categories that included
Best Director, Best Film, Best Cinematography and Best Adapted
Screenplay. Bizarrely, the film received only one
César, for Best
Supporting Actress, which went to Julie Depardieu (a baffling result as
Sagnier's performance is so obviously more worthy of an award).
Whilst Un secret
is by no
means Claude Miller's best film and whilst it is weakened by some
unfortunate stylistic decisions, it still manages to be an engaging
period piece, one which relates a story of love turned sour that is as
moving as it is disturbing.
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