Clocking in at nearly three hours, this intelligent thriller, a modern update of the Electra myth, feels curiously shorter; worth a look just for Sandrine Bonnaire's brilliant, understated turn.
The current continued neglect of Jacques Rivette's films is simply puzzling. While he remains one of the less well-known and promoted of the original French "New Wavers," every work of his I come across almost never fails to impress. Witness his thoughtful, intelligent, tension-filled drama from 1998, Secret Défense (literally translated into English; the meaning is actually closer to "Top Secret"). Its relegation to cobweb-coated obscurity is nothing short of criminal, although I do see hope for change with the success of his more recent, beautifully done comedy, Va Savoir!.
While formally classified as a thriller, Secret Défense is much more than just another piece of spine-tingling entertainment. The film plays out like a Greek tragedy, with a modern update of the Electra myth. The theme about a dead sister also recurs in the tale. In truth, the story's thriller aspect is of marginal interest to M. Rivette; it's what transpires inside the characters' hearts and minds that preoccupies him.
Main characters and basic plot.
Our female protagonist is Sylvie Rousseau, a research biologist working at a major Paris research lab. At the instigation of her brother, Paul, she slowly but inevitably gets drawn into a complex web of events involving Walser, the ex-right-hand man of her deceased father, who was a top executive in a firm that manufactured classified military weapons. The question of whether he really committed suicide or not is raised by Paul (played with unrelenting seriousness by Gregoire Colin).
The growing web that soon entangles Sylvie is spun from a series of shocking revelations, unexpected events, and unintended consequences. At the core are family secrets that are too horrible to contemplate. When suspicion for her father's death falls heavily upon Walser, the initially incredulous Sylvie soon turns into Walser's bitterest enemy.
The film gives us the requisite plot twists and surprises typical of the genre. The quiet but unyielding tension that threads through the plot slackens little, as the mystery deepens further, more questions come forth, and doubt and suspicion are cast upon most everyone.
The insularity and ennui of the main characters are emphasized, magnifying Sylvie's own feelings of anxiety and dread. Connections between persons often exist through telephone lines, and the few face-to-face meetings are fraught with unease. Conversations are brisk and to-the-point. Isolating silences surround lines of dialogue.
M. Rivette gives us lengthy shots of Sylvie packing a bag, stopping at the lab to pick up an item, buying a train ticket, getting off and on trains, picking out sunglasses, riding the TGV, trying on the sunglasses, ordering drinks at the bar, etc. To the careless observer, these might seem like totally frivolous, self-indulgent details; to the attentive viewer, they offer glimpses into Sylvie's mind as she embarks on this grave, urgent, self-imposed mission. They reflect the turbulent mix of nervousness and firm resolve one finds in an "ordinary" person who has decided to accomplish an extraordinary task. Dialogue is almost nonexistent in these scenes, and tension builds up in small but effective increments.
In this fascinating, seemingly trivial sequence of events that unfolds in quasi-real time, we see an excellent example of M. Rivette's unique style. They show his mastery in the use of fine detail and subtlety in creating scenes and portraits that feel novelistic in their observant thoroughness. Through such careful filmmaking, we get to really understand these characters. We may know little more than their present circumstances, but we perceive them as more real than fictional.
At the same time, one also recognizes the theatrical nature of everything we see. With a conjurer's sleight-of-hand, M. Rivette artfully deceives us with this curious mix of cinematic realism and dramatic artifice.
Successfully finessing the role of the ubiquitously present Sylvie would require the talents of a high-calibre actress, as the part calls for a stark, honest and internal sort of acting. It would be no exaggeration to say that the actress playing Sylvie makes or breaks the film. Happily, Sandrine Bonnaire (also in Rivette's earlier Jeanne La Pucelle) brings the necessary gravitas and nuance to this demanding role. Her understated yet compelling performance alone is worth the full price of the video.
In the first third, we have a tense Sylvie, at once troubled and boldly determined. Mlle. Bonnaire says it all through that stoic countenance, in furtive glances and other small gestures, and in her curt manner of speech. Note the scene in which a lab colleague casually inquires about her hurried departure: as she murmurs a vague answer, she lightly brushes her face with her hand—a tiny, fleeting gesture, perhaps, that also betrays the character's unconscious desire to hide something.
At this point, the balance of power between Sylvie and Walser has shifted in a direction completely unforeseen. In contrast to Sylvie, Walser remains impossibly calm and collected in the face of recent events. Walser's apparent coolness and nonchalance drives Sylvie nearly to the breaking point. A bit later, we, like Sylvie, also have to ask why Walser acts the way he does, chooses to do what he does when suddenly a too-familiar figure reappears on the scene, in what turns out to be an eerie, second plot twist.
Playing Walser with an almost arrogant self-confidence, Polish actor Jerzy Radziwilowizc proves to be a formidable foe for Sylvie, and an acting equal for Mlle. Bonnaire. A hefty man with a deep voice and a bear-like mien, he dominates with his mere presence. He exerts a menacing, Rasputin-like hold on most women he meets—but Sylvie is unlike most women. Even as he makes what amounts to a self-damning confession halfway through the film, Walser remains an enigma, to us as well as to Sylvie. Can he be trusted at all? Does he tell the truth? Lies? Or half-truths? What are his true intentions, his motives?
God (or the supreme guiding force of the universe) is in the details.
As always, Jacques Rivette here shows his painstaking attention to authentic detail. To this viewer, these details also deserve to be savored in themselves. For instance, Sylvie's depiction as a modern lab researcher might be the most accurate yet presented in a non-documentary film.
Anyone familiar with a lab will marvel at the scrupulously correct manner in which Mlle. Bonnaire does these tasks that form the bulk of everyday laboratory bench work: pouring gels and buffers, setting up the power supply to run the gels, measuring out media, and so on. One scene shows glassware with openings covered with tiny squares of tin foil—as they would be in a real lab after sterilization in that giant pressure cooker called an autoclave. Sylvie's laboratory looks every bit like the real thing, crammed to the ceiling as working labs are with laboratory equipment sitting cheek-by-jowl with laboratory supplies, papers, journals, books, notebooks and binders. These scenes were in fact shot inside one of the actual labs of the Institut Pierre et Marie Curie. (A note for the neurotically compulsive viewer: the Institute's name in reverse can be spied in an early scene.)
Minor flaws in DVD (in film?).
As for the film's weak points, one tiny technical detail may cause some confusion. In the scenes with telephone conversations, the voices of the absent parties are heard as "live" voices, instead of the "telephone voices" to which audiences have grown accustomed. It took me awhile to accept this, and it still distracts even after multiple viewings.
The brightness and clarity of the DVD's video and audio signals leave little to whine about. However, the sloppy, inaccurate English subtitles could have been done with greater care. (The titles are not integrated into the picture signal, disappearing when the disc is run in any mode other than "play," but can't be turned off, either). This bare-bones DVD offers nothing more than your basic chapter and scene selections. The film runs for almost three hours, but once you're drawn in, the time factor becomes meaningless.
Secret Défense is a fine piece of cinema that must be absorbed at a measured pace, like a delicately prepared meal filled with subtle surprises, one that must be enjoyed without haste. It deserves nothing less than the viewer's full attention. Seeing it a second and third time won't hurt, either, since more little details are caught the next time around.
The film may not attract those who at the moment prefer to be assaulted by their movies through heavy-handed storytelling, hyperactive, seizure-inducing, Dolby Surroundsound special effects and frenetic editing that leave no room for thought (or even dialogue). For the rest, those seeking a good multilayered thriller presented in thoughtful fashion, your patience with the film will be amply rewarded.
Distributed by Image Entertainment
© 1998 Pierre Grise Productions
Runtime: 166 mins.
Presented in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio (i.e., it's letterboxed)