Based on Philippe Grimbert's true-life account of his family's experiences of the Second World War, Un Secret explores the difficult issue of the Jewish experience during the occupation of France. It's ground that has often been tracked in cinema, as filmmakers have tried to come to terms with the stories of the Holocaust and the French occupation; Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants and Jean-Luc Godard's Eloge De L'Amour both addressed the subject, as did François Truffaut's The Last Metro.
Grimbert's incredible tale is one of crushing intimacy and humanity that goes beyond a mere exploration of the historical facts of the period, not merely because it charts how the family are simultaneously experiencing troubles of a more everyday nature. In the deft hands of director Claude Miller (Betty Fisher And Other Stories, The Accompanist), Grimbert's compelling tale becomes a potent human drama.
Sickly and bookish François (played respectively by Vigourt at seven years old and Dubuis at 14) lives in Paris with his parents, two fabulous human specimens - mother (De France) is a beautiful champion swimmer and father (Bruel) an equally powerful and dashing athlete. François also lives with the shadow of his imaginary brother, a bolder, stronger boy who haunts his nightmares and who would surely attract the attention of his somewhat distant parents - were he real.
François senses his family hides a secret and that it is linked to their Jewish identity - which his father is at pains to erase - and the events of the war that ended 10 years earlier. He has invented an idyllic past for his parents, but during conversations with family friend Louise (Depardieu), he discovers their marriage is rooted in a more complex and flawed reality. Its reality is linked to long-disappeared family members whose identities have remained secret since the war: a mother and a son, Hannah (Sagnier) and Simon (Nicoletti).
Un Secret's structure is complex. Much of it is told in flashback, visiting the mid 1940s, 1950s and 1980s, and filling in the gaps in narrator François's knowledge of his parents' lives. This suggests a complex family history that has had to survive both intimate personal tragedies (the fallout of infidelity, jealousy, the death of loved ones) and tragedy of the most grotesque and epic scale (the Holocaust).
The weaving of the great and the intimate in this way is skillfully accomplished and the structure allows for a subtle meditation on identity, shame, family tragedy and personal and collective responsibility for seismic social events. The film is ultimately a story about redemption. François as an adult (Amalric) has come to terms with the shadows of the past, an important landmark in his family's history as well as in the cinema of the occupation and the Holocaust. That writer Grimbert and director Miller share in the protagonist's heritage adds poignancy to this sense of redemption.
The triumph of Un Secret is the creation of an almost wholly intimate environment, a world where personal and sexual tensions ferment alongside the Occupation of France, and where the growing threat of deportation for Jewish citizens is at first an off-screen rumble. François' father is convinced the French will not capitulate to the idiocy of anti-Semitism, "This is France. The land of freedom," he says. "What about Dreyfus?", says a friend, referring to a scandal in the 1890s when a Jewish captain was framed for treason by the French authorities. "Loads of French hate Jews."
Paris is just a suggestion outside the gates of the courtyard where the family live. The war happens in newsreels, on the front page of the newspaper, the Holocaust symbolised by the sewing on of yellow stars to the family's overcoats. Importantly, no Nazi personnel are seen. When two characters are arrested for deportation, it is at the hands of French police. Later the war happens even further away as parts of the family make it to the unoccupied territories of France, a haven of cool streams and leafy glades where personal guilt and grief can still wreak havoc unfettered.
The coming of the horror of deportation and the death camps is slow and when it finally arrives, the viewer is as intimately involved with the protagonists as can be. The arbitrary and banal cruelty of the Holocaust is thus bleakly illuminated. But unlike the stark news footage of the death camps that Miller uses to brutal effect at moments in the film, it does not describe an abstract notion of horror, but something we can feel directly through the protagonists.
Miller has assembled a strong cast to convey this intimacy with particularly affecting performances in the female roles. Miller favourite Ludivine Sagnier, as Hannah, is consistently heart-breaking even when expressing joy.