[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Le Secret bears a 1974 copyright and yet it seems much more dated than that. The films of Costa-Gavras notwithstanding, political paranoia thrillers feel so endemically American that this rather nondescript French movie comes across mostly as a by-the-numbers emulation of the U.S. model—just as contemporary French films noirs recall not such honorable homegrown predecessors as Carné–Prévert and Clouzot but rather the classic American noirs of the Forties and Fifties. This guy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, throttles a guard and escapes from this semi-medieval dungeon somewhere in the French night—a half-hour’s drive from Paris, as he and we learn. “They” had been slipping him the old Chinese water torture there, he tells a handily available ladyfriend of short-term acquaintance, because he accidentally learned a secret “they” can’t afford to have anyone know; and now “they,” of course, will be looking for him. OK. By means not narratively disclosed, Trintignant quits Paris and turns up in some woodsy terrain where he hopes to go to ground in a certain shed. Said shed having burned down—or so he is told by a jovial Philippe Noiret he encounters on a hillside—he accepts the shelter of Noiret’s own bucolic retreat for the night, and several ensuing days. The problem posed to Noiret and wife Marlène Jobert, as well as to the audience: is he a paranoiac or just someone who damn well is being persecuted? In either case, which way do they jump next?
Robert Enrico has made at least two remarkable films: Au coeur de la vie…, a triptych on the American Civil War comprised of the Ambrose Bierce adaptations “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga,” and “The Mockingbird”; and Zita, a luminous coming-of-age film in which the young heroine’s apprehensive passage into the world of social, political and sexual experience is discreetly and evocatively disposed against the death of her aunt, herself a sort of living cross-section of modern European history. And Les Aventuriers (in its dubbed-English version, The Last Adventure) is not without interest in juxtaposing a benign buddy-buddy relationship, modish thrill-seeking via car, plane, and deep-sea diving, a piquant heterosexual triangle, big-time gangsterism, and the still-deadly mementos of a bygone world war. In such an auteurish context Le Secret—especially with its lovely, unromanticized natural settings (Au coeur de la vie) and all-but-abandoned homestead like an isolated pocket of graciousness and goodwill (Zita)—is tentatively recognizable as a personal film. But in this case evocation is all Enrico has going for him; on the nitty-gritty narrative level he makes a hash of things.
Le Secret is almost a styleless film, and an acute sense of style is absolutely crucial to rendering paranoia coherent, even coherently ambiguous (cf. The Parallax View, Chinatown, North by Northwest, and just about anything by Fritz Lang). Leaving aside the assumption that we already know, outside the framework of the film, that governments can’t be trusted, we still believe too strongly in Trintignant’s story ever to doubt him, even when Enrico decides to make us ambivalent about him comparatively late in the proceedings. We see the Chinese water number, and what other explanation, what explanation in the normal world, can there be for that? Well, we see that behind the credits, and it’s all golden-toned, like the subsequent monochrome flashbacks amid the full-color film proper. Those flashbacks are subjective but their unreliability is limited: there may or may not be something terrible about the way a doctor/inquisitor toys with his glasses, but there’s no doubting that he does toy with them and that there are drops of water falling CRASH! on Trintignant’s brow. Once in a while Enrico gets selfconsciously “visual” on us: the distorted shadow of Noiret as he works over a stalled generator in the cellar recalls the similarly distorted shadows of two doctors/captors as they walked down a hall past the concealed escapee; but such devices don’t elucidate Trintignant’s own paranoia for us—they simply restate it. It becomes useful late in the film to drop hints in the dialogue that each of the three principals is “crazy” in his or her way: in Noiret’s case, because according to his doctor he should have died long ago and now he’s willing to try anything, even help a possibly dangerous fugitive get out of the country, if it represents “a change”; in Jobert’s … And there I confess I’m stymied; but so is Enrico because his direction does nothing to elucidate her increasingly erratic behavior, even as un-lucid behavior. Apparently Enrico wanted to say that there are any number of excuses for becoming paranoid and as many degrees to which it is possible to be paranoid in the modern world; but without a stronger structure for his tale—and, more importantly, his telling of it—all this boils down to the same old generalization. Ennio Morricone’s score attempts to pump some epic juice into the proceedings, but the energy of the score remains tokenish overall.
Direction: Robert Enrico. Screenplay: Robert Enrico and Pascal Jardin, after the novel Undesirable Companion by Francis Ryck; dialogue by Jardin. Cinematography: Etienne Becker. Music: Ennio Morricone.
The players: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marlène Jobert, Philippe Noiret.
Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson