This tense, unsettling, sensual movie, like Philippe Grimbert's source novel, is called A Secret (or, of course, Un secret); Grimbert's American publishers gave his book the name Memory. In Claude Miller's exquisite adaptation, both titles prove equally apt.
It skillfully portrays a boy who senses all the unspoken tension in his family, and with the help of a family friend, traces it back to the Holocaust. A Secret evokes the pain of youthful sensitivity as well its special potency - the way it can make intuition almost turn psychic.
Miller connects to this lad's intelligence. The moviemaker imbues the revelations of a household torn apart by the Final Solution with a power all the more jolting because the film is so individual and specific. There will be few plot revelations here: In this case, the moviemaker has earned the right to have reviewers guard his surprises.
What happens when family secrets become memories, or vice versa? They can be as crippling as any direct trauma, as the film's prime narrator gradually lays out for us.
He's a 37-year-old psychoanalyst named Francois (Mathieu Amalric) who specializes in treating adolescents and children.
He grew up the only child of a secular Jewish couple in postwar Paris. Played as a 7-year-old by Valentin Vigourt and as a 14-year-old by Quentin Dubuis, Francois never feels comfortable in his muscle-free body, especially in the shadow of his striking swimmer mother Tania (Cecile de France) and gymnast father Maxime (Patrick Bruel). They make their living running a clothing store (the book specifies sporting goods). They find their identities in the sweat and beauty of disciplined exertion and in a physical bond that Francois finds awe-inspiring and alienating.
He imagines a brother who is everything his parents ever hoped for - strong, confident and handsome. Then flashbacks disclose that there was another young boy in his family: a half-brother who was clearly his father's son. To say any more would dilute the movie's narrative potency.
Yet it's in the power of the performances and the imagery that Miller's movie becomes indelibly haunting. You're drawn in empathy to Bruel's and de France's combination of guilt and gusto as the parents, Julie Depardieu's rapt devotion as a frank family friend, and Ludivine Sagnier's heartbreaking portrayal of a grown woman and mother unmoored by the arrest of her own parents. These characterizations, rather than clinch points, expose the workings of the human heart under inhuman pressures.
Miller has been directing movies for more than three decades. His work melds craft and instinct, from his decision to print flashbacks in color and the rest of the film in black and white, to his setting of a daydreamy ambience and tempo.
The film may lack that final twist of inspiration that would lift it to the realm of movie poetry. But Miller's lyrical use of fleshy details, such as the way de France's black bathing suit clings to her proud body, brings his movie a tactile humanity. His sensuousness contrasts profoundly with the obscene dislocations of the Holocaust.
(Strand) Starring Cecile de France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sagnier, Julie Depardieu, and Mathieu Amalric. Directed by Claude Miller. Unrated. 110 minutes.