Philippe Grimbert’s well-received 2004 autobiographical novel Secret centred on a Parisian Jewish family suffering unspeakable strain during the Second World War German occupation of France.
Now the novel has been sensitively adapted for the screen by director Claude Miller (with Natalie Carter) and transformed into compelling, beautifully played drama.
Miller turns filmmaking convention around by filming scenes set in 1985 in black and white and staging the primary sequences set in the 1940s in colour. The device enhances the emotional story of solitary 14-year-old Francois (Quentin Dubuis), who invents a smarter brother for himself and imagines his parents’ romanticised past. Until, on his 15th birthday, a friend tells Francois the truth about the lives of his parents under the Nazi occupation, shattering his utopian visions.
Synopsis cannot do justice to Miller’s moving and provocative story. The secret emerges, transforming Francois’s self-image and erasing his feelings of inadequacy when faced by his athletic father Maxime (Patrick Bruel).
Scene after scene hits hard, notably the sequence when young Francois understandably loses control while having to watch at school newsreel footage of concentration camp victims.
Fine performances come from Mathieu Almaric as the adult Francois and Cecile de France as his swimming champion mother. Strong support from Lidovine Sagnier and Julie Depardieu adds depth to Jewish director Miller’s moving storytelling.
Says Miller: “I was born in 1942. There weren’t many [Holocaust] survivors in my family — most of my uncles, aunts and grandparents didn’t come back from the concentration camps. As a boy, then a teenager I was traumatised, I was haunted by this traumatising, stressful story.”
It is to his considerable credit that he has transmuted his personal trauma into such an accessible — and haunting — a story.