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|Index||12 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Five years after Sylvie's father dies, he comes to haunt her. It all
starts when Paul, her unstable brother, brings her a picture where his
father is seen at the train station before he jumped to his death. Paul
points to a shadowy figure in the background and both come to the
conclusion is Walser, an enigmatic figure that is now in charge of
their father's business.
When Paul vows to avenge his father, Sylvie decides to do it herself because she figures in her brother's mental state, he'll probably botch it. Sylvie, who has confronted Walser in his office, after she has received the unexpected visit of Veronique, his secretary, prepares for the trip to the country estate where she will commit the crime. Unfortunately, instead of killing Walser, she accidentally kills Veronique.
Walser disposes the body, and makes Sylvie his accomplice. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Ludivine, Vero's sister who bears an uncanny resemblance to her dead sibling. Walser proceeds to seduce the young woman, who stays in the estate, much to the chagrin of Sylvie.
The key to the story lies with Genevieve, Sylvie's mother. The mystery involves the strange suicide by Elizabeth, her oldest daughter when Sylvie was a young girl. That tragedy involved the dead father as the one responsible for the young woman's death. Walser, who appears to be the guilty party all along, turns out to be an instrument used by Genevieve to avenge Elizabeth's death.
Jacques Rivette's 1998 film "Secret Defense" is a thriller in the style of Hitchcock, but he doesn't hold any surprises, since he doesn't hide anything from the viewer. This story is told as Sylvie sees it. As such, we are always following her, either on the Metro when she goes to see Paul, or taking train trips in which her mental state is right there for us to see. This is a variation on the theme of the classical Electra, adapted to a modern setting.
Sandrine Bonnaire makes a great Sylvie. Ms. Bonnaire is never boring, in spite of the length of the film. Jerzy Radzilowicz, a distinguished Polish actor plays Walser in a complex performance. He doesn't endear to us from the start, but by the end we realize what's in his head. Laure Masrac appears in the dual role of Veronique/Ludivine with great ease. Gregoire Colin has only limited opportunity, as well as Francoise Fabien.
"Secret Defense" is not a film for everyone. Like anything from this French director, he is more interested in what his characters are doing at any given time as he takes us along for those rides, something that with another man at the helm, perhaps those scenes would be edited. The film makes sense after all the evidence is examined, but it might appear boring for those viewers that Mr. Rivette lost along the way to solving the main issue in the story.
A warning first off that if you have problems with slow tempo in movies
you really aren't going to make it to the end of this one, because the
tempo here is slooooow.
The plot concerns a cellular biologist by profession called Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and her attempt resolve a mystery concerning the death of her father a decade previously, prime suspect is his business associate Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). The story is a tragedy by structure.
Secret défense has been labelled a thriller by some, but verging on three hours and with only enough action to fill a single conventional thriller hour at the most, and that quite tame, your adrenal gland is going to be taking a kip during this movie. Furthermore the elements of the thriller genre are mostly joshed. For example, there's a date-stamped intertitle at the start of the movie that announces that it's Friday May 9th at 10 o'clock, it's the only title of it's kind in the movie and apropos of nothing, cocking a snook at the pointlessness of this genre convention. Action scenes are drained of dramatic impact and woodenly acted, as if they are reenactments or rehearsals. The scenes are pathetic, in that they are designed to make you feel the wretched stupidity and irreversibility of violence. Effects are no more complicated than the old blood capsule in the mouth. The plot seems carelessly anachronistic, hinging around a train murder that makes no sense: unfortunately throwing someone off a TGV and making it seem like an accident, due to modern safety precautions, is slightly less plausible than it would have been in Hitchcock's day. One minor annoyance is that telephone conversations are carried out by obvious voice-over from the voice at the end of the line, which carries no telephonic distortion. Still this is probably conspicuous lack of care.
There are two great things going on with the movie though. The first is the simple joy in listening to people speak deeply that characterises the best New Wave films. Just simple things like the admission of the housekeeper Marthe that she never really had a childhood because she was always big inside her head. The second thing is the subtle photography of great New Wave cinematographer William Lubtchansky, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year. The exact allure of his work is hard to point a finger at, there is nothing mannered about his style. He manages threat very well here, just through little things, like having a coach driving up the road behind Sylvie whilst she is walking at night and pulling up in front of her, perfectly normal yet alarming on an animal level, or having trains crash past at the station. Warnings occur as well, a yellow hazard sign in the corner of the screen at the lab, a red warning light on the metro line, used rather than placed, all very natural. The value is often more to do with absence than anything else, I never saw anything in the movie that was visually inappropriate, that didn't feel right, Lubtchansky seems to have a feeling for what fits, for what works, an organic economy and a lack of extravagance that filled me with slow-burn joy. My favourite shot perhaps was in the mansion, where Sylvie walks through a gloomy room towards the garden and becomes silhouetted from behind, a sign perhaps of the darkness enveloping her. I also liked the psychological significance of the landscape backgrounds during train scenes, Sylvie full of clarity and deadly intent travels to the visual accompaniment of flat verdant blur; later with her mother the speed is slower, the landscape cluttered with a sprawling carpet of white buildings, disorganised, encumbering, again images used not forced.
It's a movie perhaps about folly perhaps. Sylvie ignores the patient wooing of an urbane work colleague to concentrate on raking up the past. Both Sylvie and Walser are slaves of their work. A note to all plate-spinners: the plates will carry on spinning without you! The one constant of any large organisation is the superfluity of absolutely any individual. Incidentally Sylvie's work world was rendered quite well, back at university I used to do lab work in a cellular biology lab, Sylvie was there using a Gilson's pipette correctly and expelling the tips, which was quite nostalgic for me. According to the credits the scenes were actually shot in the labs of the Institut Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris.
The soundtrack consists of only two songs which play over the start and end of the credits, one piece is by Spanish Renaissance composer Pedro Guerrero and is a "moresca" called "Di, perra mora", "Variation: Moorish whore" the other an anonymous piece also from the same era "Diferencias sobre las Vacas", or "Cow variations". Morescas were grotesque foolish dances where the dancers often posed as blacked-up Moors. I think the implication is that we're seeing some sort of timeless farce, with the characters condemned to repeat foolish steps, despite the presence of reason.
This is a spectacularly successful mystery film by director Jacques Rivette, who also collaborated on the screenplay. His films always contain long, lingering shots and scenes that seem to go on forever. Sometimes this can be so irritating one wants to scream. For instance, I tried three times to watch his LA BELLE NOISEUSE (1991) and gave up in exasperation each time because it was so boring, so enormously long, and like a vanity exercise. One would therefore think that the last person to make a successful thriller would be Rivette, with his slow pace. But incredibly, with this film, his snail's pace works perfectly and turns the film into a masterpiece. This would have been impossible without the genius actress Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays the lead and monopolizes the screen with complete success. Bonnaire made it clear to the world that she was at a higher level than most actresses in 1985 when she starred in Agnes Varda's extraordinary and searing film, VAGABOND (SANS TOI NI LOI). She is so quiet and meditative that she sucks the audience into the vortex of her thoughts, and carries us right along with her as she swirls with silent, unarticulated torment. She showed this again in the amazing L'EMPREINTE DE L'ANGE (MARK OF AN ANGEL aka ANGEL OF MINE, 2008, see my review). She really is one of the most intense and powerful actresses in the world today. In this film, she plays a cold, introverted, determined woman who has withdrawn into herself and is unable to return affection without the greatest of difficulty. The man who is constantly courting her and assuring her of his feelings is barely noticed by her, so absorbed is she in her own issues, and preoccupied by what is troubling her. 'Secret défense' is the French expression corresponding to 'official secret' in English. It is not necessarily a reference to military defence (British) or military defense (USA). Although Bonnaire's deceased father had been the head of France's largest defence contractor, succeeded by the mysterious figure of Walser, played with appropriate ambiguity by Polish actor Jerzy Radziwilowicz (which by the way means 'son of Radziwil' in Polish), who is so well known to cinema lovers from Andrezj Wajda's classic films MAN OF MARBLE (1977) and MAN OF IRON (1981), these hints of military secrecy flicker in the background like the reflections on a wall in an indoor swimming pool, but never come into focus. This all helps to create the air of menace and conspiracy which pervades this film, and which expresses the French attitude towards the worlds of officialdom, money and power. This film is primarily one of slow realization of what had previously seemed inconceivable to the normal and innocent mind. Bonnaire is brilliant at slowly coming to these realizations before our eyes, in the lingering shots where there is nothing between her face and us but her thoughts. How easily this film could have failed miserably! But she and Rivette together pull it off, almost as a miracle. I was on the edge of my seat for each and every prolonged scene, and never lost patience. The slow pace merely serves to heighten and intensify the unbearable suspense. Somehow Rivette knew the exact instant to cut. As soon as a scene has served its purpose, and been squeezed of the last of its juice, it skin is thrown into the bucket and we reach for the next fruit. I watched this film twice because I wanted to be sure. Yes, it really is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The music at the beginning and the end is viola da gamba music played by Jordi Savall (one of the world's two best gamba players, the other being the younger Paolo Pandolfo). The film's inherent ambiguity and theme of double-appearances is intensified by the acting of the amazing Laure Marsac, who plays identical twin sisters. Both of them are in a perpetual state of volatile and wavering uncertainty. After Bonnaire is informed by her younger brother that he has found evidence that their father had been murdered five years before, and that he was pushed from a train by someone, and did not jump and commit suicide as officially recorded, she receives a curious visit from Marsac, who is Walser's secretary and lover. This is one of the most ambiguous scenes in the film, in which nothing which is intended to be said is actually said by Marsac, and she reluctantly leaves without having made her purpose clear at all. The air of mystery is continually heightened by such devices of the story. Guns are continually being taken out of pockets and put into drawers or desks, and we don't know where they keep coming from. We are constantly aware that they are there, and could be removed and used by one of the many increasingly desperate people in this story. Then one of the twin sisters disappears and suddenly she is seen again by the shocked characters in the story, only to be revealed as the unknown twin whom they had not realized existed. She moves into the country mansion known as 'the Domaine' and assumes the role of her vanished sister. Meanwhile, Bonnaire's desperate younger brother is charging around on his motorbike with his gun, threatening to kill Walser, who he says killed his father in order to take over his company. A photo has mysteriously appeared, we are never told from where, showing Walser with his father on the train platform on the morning of the father's death, contradicting Walser's supposed alibi that he was elsewhere at the time. This film has two parallel stories, like two parallel universes, the false and the true. At how many points do these intersect? And how can truth be separated from illusion in this double world where it is not only sisters who are twins, but events themselves which exist in two forms and which bear an ambiguous and double interpretation?
I read the comment posted on the sight and felt I had to give a counterbalance... I saw this film about two years ago on a basic VHS copy and was astonished. Yes of course you need to be prepared to deal with a long playing time, and a pace that may at first appear on the slow side, but BUT... ...Rivette pulls off an extraordinary coup in managing to ratchet up the sense of paranoia so intensely that, by about a third of the way through the film, you find yourself watching even the most innocent, apparently event-less scene with total rapt attention. Essentially taking core Hitchcockian suspense techniques and pushing them almost even further than that Master did, this has to be seen to be believed, in my opinion. Bonnaire is extraordinary; you become engrossed in just watching her thinking! The whole thing is a text book example of how to manipulate the viewer's mind to such an extent that they end up directing the film themselves... My only cavil might be the ending - I needed perhaps a touch more to be brought out onto the surface, but otherwise, (and certainly if you know Rivette's other work) open your mind and try it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For a start, it's not as boring, stale and jejune as Greek mythology.
Really not up to Out 1, Merry-Go-Round, etc., but definitely a nice
However, someone has posted a comment making this movie "a modern Electra". That's not true. Of course, Electra must have been very much in Rivette's mind when conceiving the script. But the influences are far richer than just the Electra myth, and Rivette presents a much more subtle story than just a modern Electra. The most significant difference might be the motif for the murder of the father. Agamemnon was not murdered for noble reasons (as th father in the movie), but because Clytemnestra had an affair and wanted to get rid of him. This takes us away from the primitive Greek "A sleeps with B's C", "C's D therefore kills B and A's E", but then "E's F tries to sleep with A and F's G before killing himself, but fails to kill C" etc. Of course, we never learn in the movie where the brother got the photo (which reminds one of the oracle telling Electra's brother to get a revenge for the murder of their father), but then again, all the stuff about shooting the wrong person has nothing to do with the story of Electra. Well, notice the complete lack of intervention by the gods (in this case, mostly Appolo and Athena) in the movie; once again, something without which a Greek myth isn't a Greek myth anymore. Also, the nice twist at the end of the movie - Sylvie getting shot herself, again by accident - has no counterpart in the Greek myth. The story of the real Electra actually ends sort of well after Orest is found not guilty by the judges.
On the side: The story of Electra can only be told faithfully if there is a story of a war in the background. Well, in the movie there isn't.
So, please... It's really nice for some people that they are oh-so-cultivated. But they should either come up with a subtle analysis of the links between a modern script and some Greek (or otherwise classical) subject, or leave it.
Anyway, having read the comment which turns "Secret Défense" into a remake of Vertigo, I should have to apologize. At least Electra clearly is intended reference/source of inspiration... whatever. On the other hand, the comparison with Vertigo and the comparison of Vertigo to Greenaway's "Cook, Thief, Wife, Lover" is so far fetched you cannot even see where the commentator got the idea. I've noticed the tendency of some (mostly Americans) to think of Hitchcock as the center of the cinematographic universe. Let me tell you: He isn't. He has made some entertaining films, but they are mostly based on overacted simplistic scripts, which fake psycho-grammatic depth but really just display simple psychologically prototyped characters.
About the title of "Secret Défense". Those (non-native speakers of French) who are wondering about the strange ordering of adjective and noun in the title in French should go here: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_classifi%C3%A9e_en_France In this light, it is of course stupid of the US distributor to call the film "Secret Defense" in English - because that, as far as I can judge, means something completely different (i.e., it just has its literal meaning in English).
Modern version of the Elektra-myth, keeping rather close to the original (if you look closely), but making sense, in the typical Rivette way, also as a wild story of crime, revenge and love apart from the myth. Sandrine Bonnaire alone is worth the film.
"Secret Defense" is a neo-noir with a mystery at its core. It is not a
conventional thriller. A comparable noir story would be "All My Sons"
(1948). Although these two stories are not the same at all in details,
their core element is the same, namely, a defense contractor who has
done something morally wrong in the past. The title, which means
defense secret might lead you to think this is about defense secrets
and that the movie is a thriller along those lines. No, it is not, not
at all. Just as "All My Sons" focused on the effects of the wrong on
family, so does "Secret Defense".
This movie is rich in themes and characterizations. Also, it is infused with a particular view of its characters. Certainly, the cinematography is excellent. The acting burden on Ms. Bonnaire was very heavy, but she carried it off extremely well. The entire cast can be proud of their work. The director's (Jacques Rivette) film ideas are very much present and distinctive, and they are fused with the movie's themes and view of the characters.
Themes include material ambition, hiding the truth, over-protectiveness, impulsiveness, isolation of people, guilt, communication failure, misperception, jealousy, and resort to violence.
The past weighs very heavily on the present in this story. Bonnaire plays Sylvie. The story begins when her brother Paul (Gregoire Colin) comes into a photograph that strongly suggests their father didn't die accidentally 5 years earlier, and that the man who killed him was Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). Paul is determined to kill Walser. Sylvie, the older of the two, wants strongly to prevent this. The story will eventually involve their mother and their sister Elizabeth, a suicide from 5 years earlier. It will involve Walser's secretary (Laure Marsac) and her sister.
There is a lengthy sequence in which Sylvie travels to Walser's Estate that lasts about 20 minutes, start to finish. It is the exploration of Sylvie's emotions during this sequence that justifies this length. This actually distinguishes and elevates the film above conventional thriller status. Similarly, the story takes its time when Sylvie stays at the Estate for several days. The director has taken the risk of showing the emotional states of its main characters as human beings, not as movie-creations, even though we are watching a movie. In doing this, he has succeeded in separating this movie from the herd.
Former French New Wave director and writer Jacques Rivette's
seventeenth feature film, written by himself, his frequent collaborator
Pascal Bonitzer and Emmanuelle Cuau, tells the story of medical
researcher Sylvie who becomes alarmingly unsettled when her younger
brother Paul claims that he can prove that their deceased father was
actually killed by his closest colleague named Walser. Puzzled by her
brothers questionable discovery she sets out on a private investigation
that leads her into a personal odyssey.
Precisely directed and brilliantly structured, this subtle and character-driven neo-noir from one of the greatest auteur filmmakers in cinema history is a rhythmic and distinguished thriller about a woman who has to go on a deep voyage into her own past in order to learn the truth about her family. The long runtime which is a Jacques Rivette hallmark, the efficient editing, the quick-witted dialogue and William Lubtchansky's atmospheric photography, increases the mystery in this late 1990s small masterpiece which has aspects of drama and theatre, a prominent performance from Sandrine Bonnaire as the female protagonist and a harmonic score. The love for cinema shines in so many of Jacques Rivette's films, and this is no exception.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With "Secret Defense", a celebrated "art" director (Jacques Rivette) tackles a popular "pulp" genre (the mystery thriller). The result is demanding yet unpretentious; what Rivette asks from his audience is simply to surrender to his own specific style and rhythm, which means: no musical score (except for the credits), long camera takes, detailed observation of (not always) insignificant everyday activities, no comic relief, etc. If you are prepared to do that, the film is very accessible; it has a solid, coherent plot and gives you, gradually, every piece of the puzzle. It's basically a meditation on the twists of fate, leading to a shocking yet plausible ending. And as you'd expect from a French film, the acting is exceptional; Sandrine Bonnaire doesn't simply play the central tormented character, she becomes one with it. On the whole, I think "Secret Defense" is a refreshing break from both "too-commercial" and "too-arty" fare, and an engrossing experience. *** out of 4.
But let me concede right away that this is a very personal review.
"Secret Defense" has many of the characteristics that usually commend a
film to me: it is well acted, it is slow, and it is French! Its milieu
is the familiar one of the Parisian "haute bourgeoisie"; the smart city
apartment and country château are a little hackneyed perhaps, but
attractive all the same. The photography is good. The direction is
painstaking. It promises to be an intelligent production.
To be honest, however, I found it very hard to sustain interest in it, and my mind soon wandered to the question of why it so utterly failed to engage me. I think it is because it is not at all concerned with character or personality. I can readily believe the suggestion made by previous reviewers that the film is modelled to some extent on ancient Greek drama. Sylvie, Paul, Walser, and Veronique are toys of the gods, not believable individuals. Their responses to events lack credibility. The central relationship between Sylvie and Walser never convinced me.
It might be argued that the people in "Secret Defense" are simply very cold-blooded. Yet they are hot-blooded enough when it comes to seeking revenge. The film also contains two of the absurdities often noticeable in more popular thrillers: the police simply do not exist in the world depicted, and the characters show no fear and little wariness even when dealing with people whom they suspect of murder.
If your preference is for character-driven drama and realism, you are unlikely to find "Secret Defense" a satisfying experience. And it lasts nearly three hours.
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