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Un Secret exposes one family's wartime myths

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Actress Cécile De France swathed in a black one-piece bathing suit commands not just the attention of French director Claude Miller, but virtually every character in the Holocaust-themed drama Un Secret.

Like an athletic Catherine Deneuve, De France is one of those statuesque French blondes who’s practically a ready-made object of masculine obsession. De France plays Tania, a former swimming champion, and her body exerts a kind of gravitational pull on those who surround her. Un Secret’s first scenes take place at a sun-drenched swimming resort in 1955. Tania’s physical perfection clearly stirs something in her prepubescent son, François.

Un Secret could be a companion film to Oscar winner The Reader in its exploration of sexuality and World War II survivors' guilt. Like The Reader’s main character, François was born after the Holocaust but must grapple with its legacy as a boy and a man. Instead of focusing on German culpability, Un Secret explores a family’s repressed memories and ambivalent feelings toward its own Jewishness.

Based on real people and events, the film unfolds through François’ eyes in 1955, 1962 and 1985 (when he’s an adult in black-and-white scenes played by Mathieu Almaric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). As a sickly 10-year-old, François endured the disapproval of his gymnast father, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), and cultivated the notion of an imaginary playmate: a robust, fearless older brother. François also wonders why he was christened under the name Grimbert when his relatives all seem to be Jewish.

His spinster aunt eventually reveals to François the hidden truths of his parents' marriage, which include unknown relatives, such as his father’s first wife (Ludivine Sagnier). Un Secret’s extended centerpiece flashes back to trace Tania's and Maxime’s twisty history in the 1930s and in Nazi-occupied France. It follows how the war, institutional anti-Semitism and mutual desire brought them together. Like François, the audience knows how everything ends up, and though we brace ourselves for the worst, characters still make decisions that shock us.

For a French film, Un Secret is surprisingly unsubtle with some of the reverse foreshadowing scenes. (Characters speculate that anti-Semitic trends won’t be so bad, for instance.) The film’s flashback scheme proves unnecessarily complicated — we don’t really need to see François in three different decades to appreciate the family’s tensions and fraudulent history. Not counting the 1985 scenes, De France scarcely seems to age, but that may be Miller’s intention. It may also be a way of showing that some individuals affect us so profoundly that they live, unchanged, in our memories.

For its 10th year, the High Museum’s French Film Yesterday and Today also presents the quirky rural film The Grocer’s Son on April 10, the comedic thriller Crossed Tracks on April 17, and two short family classics, The Red Balloon and The White Mane on April 18.

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