Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger feels like one of those cartoon bar patrons whose eyes bug out and tongues loll when the hot lady walks by.
"Am I crueler than God, or Creation?"—Christophe
Choses secrètes, or Secret Things as we call it on this side of the pond, seeks to answer the age-old question: Are French women hot?
Facts of the Case
Experienced Nathalie (Coralie Revel, hot) and innocent Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou, equally hot if not hotter) work in a dive bar for a scummy manager. When they find themselves jobless, Nathalie takes in Sandrine. She teaches Sandrine about her womanly parts and the nature of relationships. The two hatch a plan to invade the corporate world using feminine wiles alone.
Sandrine's mark is Delacroix (Roger Mirmont, not too shabby), a hard-working man who has forgotten his dreams. With a little encouragement from Sandrine, his joie de vivre is awakened. Nathalie sets her sights higher by targeting the delicious narcissist who runs the company. Christophe (Fabrice Deville, "GQ models aspire to be me" hot) is fiercely magnetic and thoroughly depraved. Aside from his sister and partner in crime, Charlotte (Blandine Bury, globe-searingly hot), Christophe seems to have no true love or compassion.
By the time this ever-escalating human drama plays out, stout resolve will vanish, sex and/or death will occur, and an unlikely benefactor will reap unforeseen rewards.
The 2000s have been good for sex and nihilism in French cinema. An innocuous-seeming clone of Amélie called Love Me if You Dare ignited outcry because its characters took a game of dare to the extreme, using sex, death, and shame as game pieces to up the stakes. Catherine Breillat, always controversial and introspectively dense, took her act to a higher level of sex and violence in Fat Girl with a shockingly uncompassionate conclusion. And now Jean-Claude Brisseau brings us Secret Things, in which corporate sharks use sex and fatalism to further their own nihilistic goals. It seems that erotically charged, high-stakes games of Truth or Dare are all the rage in neo-millennium France.
Secret Things stands out from the rest for its unabashed sexuality. The film opens with the stark-naked Nathalie writhing about and shoving fingers into various places. In some movies, such a wanton display would be the climax. But in Secret Things it is merely foreplay. As the film slithers onward, our eyes are treated to greater and greater erotic spectacles. Women and men, women and women, and women and men and women and women do very secret things. I've seen my fair share of softcore erotica, and I tell you that Secret Things found ways to make me feel innocent again. Whether it was Sabrina Seyvecou's bashful fake orgasm, or Revel and Seyvecou's unabashed heavy petting, or even Deville's godlike, orgiastic trysts on an Egyptian altar, this film rediscovers forgotten erotic territory. Be you woman or man—if this film doesn't find a way to stir you then perhaps film-based erotica is not your ticket.
At the visual spectacle mounts, Secret Things also tries to engage our minds with a larger-than-life plot. This is where the film breaks down…if countless reviews are to be believed. The general consensus is that Secret Things finally bogs itself down with increasingly ludicrous plot twists, which makes it an inviting but flawed film.
If you take Secret Things at face value, this claim has merit. The first two acts are more engaging than the last, with devious office politics and a strangely compelling sexual sting operation. We find ourselves rooting for Nathalie and Sandrine even if we can't precisely say why. After all, their calloused misuse of sex and truth is an affront to humanity; the pair would be villains in any other movie.
The final act is simply outrageous. It outdoes Eyes Wide Shut's orgy sequence on the way to an incongruously demeaning denouement. It becomes laughable, and in doing so strips certain characters of carefully stockpiled charm.
Though I seem to be in the minority, I believe that Secret Things is absolutely cohesive. The structure is too detailed and the escalation too calculated to be otherwise. The final act was there all along; we simply didn't open our eyes enough to see it. Secret Things uses the ascent into ludicrousness that people protest to highlight the central point of the film. If you think it through, Natalie is not a sympathetic character, nor is Sandrine. On the other hand, the "villain" is never anything but up front and honest about his intentions and emotional failings. Beyond that, the philosophical discussions actually make reasonable sense. Some dismiss these ramblings as psychobabble. I found that they made an intellectually stimulating backdrop that both framed and accented the sensual goings on. Without this exact plot around it, I fear that Secret Things would have been a failure as an erotic film.
I particularly liked the way that music, specifically the absence of music, helps enhance the climax of the film. Music is subdued and rarely present in the realistically rendered office scenes. In time we adjust to this absence of musical cues. But when Christophe unleashes the full brunt of his demonic glee, the soundtrack explodes with choirs of angels. It is the kind of stunt that abolishes desensitization while inviting accusations of showmanship. Music, lighting, and garish colors help emphasize the surrealism of the last scenes. The overdone surrealism can be nothing short of intentional.
I'm also partial to Brisseau's carefully constructed relationships. Nathalie begins as the woman with everything (money, a home, sexual control, composure, nice clothes) while Sandrine has nothing. By the end of the film, their roles are reversed in many ways. The juxtaposition of ascent and decline adds structure to the narrative. Another example is Delacroix. He is the target for Nathalie and Sandrine (literally as well as figuratively). Just when the ménage à trois is in full swing, Delacroix is targeted by Christophe and Charlotte. Delacroix merges the dyads of Nathalie and Sandrine with Christophe and Charlotte, becoming a literal cross.
The actors sell their relationships. As the film unfolded, I found myself believing that the characters were real and living in that world. Revel, Seyvecou, and Mirmont are simply fantastic in their portrayals, being both calloused and sympathetic. The sexual chemistry was perfect, as well as the intimate proclamations afterward. I bought Delacroix's love, Sandrine's ambition, and Nathalie's sadness. Some critics have punished Fabrice Deville and Blandine Bury for being too pretty. I applaud them for taking the untenable position of demigods on earth to the extreme. The actors are achingly attractive, and the plot and cinematography highlight their natural perfection. To see these two onscreen together is a gift. For his part, Deville ran rampant with a grandiose persona, which is almost as laudable as Revel and Seyvecou's more naturalistic portrayals.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though it was shot in glossy 1.66:1, First Run Features decided against an anamorphic transfer in this DVD release of Secret Things. In fact, they barreled right past non-anamorphic and actually cropped it into a full-frame, pan-and-scan debacle. I'm frustrated and confused by this poor decision. I as a critic and DVD Verdict as a film criticism site reject pan-and-scan transfers in principle, but we extend a modicum of sympathy for kid-friendly or non-artistic releases. For a foreign erotic drama that is primarily visual in nature, such a decision is inexplicable. The confusion part of "frustrated and confused" comes from First Run Features' own horn tooting, where they proclaim a proud heritage of bringing independent films to the world. They even mention a Smithsonian retrospective being held in their honor. You're telling me that a proud champion of independent cinema can't muster the wherewithal to provide a transfer in its original aspect ratio, especially a film made two years ago?
It hardly matters at this point, but the video woes don't end with pan and scan. The subtitles, though large and easy to read, are burned in. This compounds the frustration of those who want to analyze Brisseau's careful compositions, both naughty and otherwise. In addition, the black levels aren't convincing and the color balance seems slightly muted. There are stray flecks, but the recent vintage of the transfer precludes and major source damage.
The audio is better, but not by much. Clipping forces the soundtrack into harshness, as though someone were blowing into the mic. It has been pushed too far and sounds brittle.
The Photo Gallery has six pictures in it. And as I've said before, any filmography is inferior to the Internet Movie Database.
Can an erotic film be a great film? The two don't often go hand in hand. Secret Things does the erotic part perfectly, and the balance of the film is more sophisticated and philosophically convoluted than it has a right to be. To this critic, Secret Things is a resounding success. If only the DVD had been in the original aspect ratio, we'd be looking at a clear winner.
Jean-Claude Brisseau and his actors are innocent. First Run Features has earned a stern warning from this court to provide the original aspect ratio as an option, and cease and desist with burned-in subtitles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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