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February 17, 2005

DVD Journal: "Secret Things"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"Choses Secretes" ("Secret Things") delivered everything that I want from a French movie. Everything and then some, in fact: sex; philosophy; erotic desperation; spare visual beauty; classic hotel particulier rooms with well-dressed walls and bare floors; bored and perverse decadence; elegant people fascinated by the game of l'amour ... It also delivered a French-art attitude that I adore: the conviction that "la femme" is life's great adventure, and that a culture's women are its greatest works of religious art. I spent much of the movie in a state of French-film overload, not that you'll catch me complaining.

Despite being Franco-erotic-philosophical in an almost generic sense, "Secret Things" is a very odd, one-of-a-kind viewing experience. On the one hand, it's full of wit and observation; much of it is made with precision and sophistication. Interesting to learn that Eric Rohmer -- Mr. Less-Is-More himself -- has been a major sponsor of Jean-Claude Brisseau, the writer-director of "Secret Things."

(Oh, the hell with it. I'm going to refer to the film as "Choses Secretes." There are moments when it's more fun to give in to pretentiousness than to resist it.)

On the other hand, "Choses Secretes" also has a driven and compulsive quality that's unusual in French films. It's there in the films of Maurice Pialat and Andrzej Zulawski. But I can't offhand think of another French filmmaker who brings anything entirely similar to his or her work. And I know of no one -- French or non-French -- who makes sex-and-death films that resemble this one. Catherine Breillat's sex/art films, many of which I love, express her erotic monomania. But Breillat keeps her films spare and chic; good or bad, they never sprawl.

"Choses Secretes," well ... When it isn't being well-pulled-together, the film lurches about with the kind of huffing-and-puffing obviousness that suggests "overheated autodidact." Despite the modesty of the production and the low-key naturalism of much of his style -- despite the Rohmer-esque, Whit Stillman-esque surface of the film -- Jean-Claude Brisseau makes films like a man possessed, swept away by his ideas and his fantasies.

Although he's made a number of movies, Brisseau has none of the professional artist's agility with the rules of art. (He worked as a schoolteacher for many years before getting his first chance to make a movie.) An example: Brisseau has no instinct for the timely delivery of information. Characters are picked up and dropped almost at random. Explanations don't come when you need them; often they don't come at all.

The usual dramatic contract between filmmaker and audience is something like, "I promise to address nearly all the questions I raise, and to do so at more or less the moment when you need me to do so. And I promise to take on these questions in ways that will provide, at a minimum, some surprise and delight." Brisseau's many, many violations of this contract don't seem to be part of a conscious artistic strategy. He just seems to be clueless.

Yet he has much of what a certain kind of artist needs -- talent, themes, and obsessions, to name a few. I found it surprisingly enjoyable to watch the way he rends the film's tragicomic, jeunes-filles-in-Paris naturalism with touches of surrealism and expressionism, even if I did need to pinch myself to believe what I was watching. Brisseau goes in for spasms of backlighting that are meant, in the most direct (and even hick) way, to indicate divine radiance. He even has a mysterious black-shrouded figure walking through the film, evidently having gotten lost and wandered in from the set of "The Seventh Seal."

Characters launch into weirdo bouts of philosophizing that are unjustified even in French-movie terms. Characters in in French movies will philosophize about sex and death, god knows. But most French directors take care to make their monologues seem halfway plausible. Brisseau doesn't seem to know that he ought to take precautions. His characters just spout off, and not when the moment seems right to them but when it seems right to Brisseau. The implausibilities build and build.

Thank heavens, then, that the sex-fantasy content in Brisseau's movie is so powerful. "This is certainly a man who knows what he enjoys filming!" The Wife said as the film's two lead actresses kissed and fingered each other. The smooching was hot and hungry, and the fingering was so vigorous (and so borderline-hardcore) that it made me recall that Victorian-porn term "frigging"; these two girls were really frigging each other. Although The Wife and I enjoyed the ludicrous-spectacle side of the movie, we also had to admit that we found the film provocative in the best art/sex-film way. For all the giggling we did, neither one of us felt like laughing the film off. We submitted instead.

Oh, right: the story. Although it's basically a traffic jam of ideas and fantasies, the film does have a setup. (Brisseau probably imagines that he's made a lot of concessions to the audience's desire for a story.) A tawny, slim young beauty is adrift in Paris. She seems proper and gazelle-like; she resembles Chloe Sevigny. But, while she looks like a classic naive bourgeoise, she's ferociously sexual, and ferociously determined to make it in the big city too -- echoes here of much French lit, from "Lost Illusions" to "The Red and the Black."

She falls in with another ambitious girl who, like her, has no connections. This one is a dancer who has been paying the bills by working as a stripper. She's quite a contrast to the serene-seeming heroine: dark-haired, high-cheekboned, almost Transylvanian in her beauty. She's also streetwise, hard-bitten, and perhaps even malevolent; she has seen a little too much of life already. Together, the two young women vow to use what they have to conquer the city and rise to the top.

An example of how Brisseau works is [SPOILER ALERT] a scene where the more-naive girl -- who claims never to have had an orgasm with a boyfriend -- demonstrates to the dark-haired dancer her faking-an-orgasm technique. She's sitting on the floor in a bedroom, reclining against the side of a bed. The actress writhes, moans, and makes faces; you're reminded of course of Meg Ryan. But this scene goes 'way beyond the "When Harry Met Sally" scene. It goes on and on, for one thing; you stop laughing and start watching more and more closely. And what you see is this: the actress flushes, and her skin gets glossy. (The shot is lit so you can see her flush and grow damp.) When she finishes her faking-an-orgasm act, she's soft and tousled -- convincingly post-coital.

You can't help wondering: Could it perhaps be that the actress imagined her way so far into the fictional situation that she had herself a real orgasm? Bigger Questions pile up too: When does acting become real? Where's the line between reality and illusion? And what fascinates people about observing performers walk that real/unreal line? Brisseau wants us to ask ourselves to what extent playacting is real, and how much of reality consists of playacting, and what the role of Eros (with its connection to death and life) is in this dynamic. Meg Ryan's scene was a likable naughty joke, and bless it for that. The scene in "Choses Secretes" is about sex, religion, and transfiguration. Yeah, baby!

"Choses Secretes" begins on a loony high, with a completely-naked performance in a bar; the black-shrouded Death figure is part of the audience of hipsters and lowlifes. Soon after, there's a slow-ish stretch where the girls find jobs and settle in at their new positions. But the compulsive/obsessive carrying-on starts up again soon after. And, oh, the riches it brings: a married boss; an amoral rich kid; blackmail; several threesomes ... I notice in Amazon's viewer reviews that some people found they couldn't stay with the movie when it swung into its "Eyes Wide Shut"/"Story of O" final section. Me? By that point I felt well-prepared for an orgy in a chateau, thank you very much, and I enjoyed the sequence thoroughly.

How good is "Choses Secretes"? Who cares? It's certainly odd and intense enough to be worth a rent, though I wonder whether you may not need to be a fan of the erotic-philosophical Euro-genre to get something out of the movie. (Michael Serafin, are you out there? I'm eager to know how you react.)

Anyway: a fable about life, la femme, sex, and death. Lots of art; loads of nudity; beauty and melancholy to spare; shocks and provocations enough for five films. FWIW, I enjoyed "Choses Secretes" much more than I did 1998's widely-praised "The Dreamlife of Angels," which it resembles in some ways. Fans of this kind of thing might also want to search out the 1999 Isabelle Huppert-starrer "The School of Flesh,", or Nathalie Baye in "An Affair of Love," or a few of Catherine Breillat's movies. (Try this one, this one, or this one.) "Pola X" is beautiful to look at and features a good amount of Extreme Sex, but I didn't enjoy the movie much.

Fun to notice that "Choses Secretes" won an official French film award. Could official America ever bring itself to celebrate such an item? In America or England, giving the kind of performance the two actresses -- Coralie Revel and Sabrina Seyvecou -- gave in "Choses Secretes" might have KO'd their careers, or sentenced the women to a lifetime in Skinemax movies. Joely Richardson, for example, was so humiliated by the English press's treatment of her performance in a Ken Russell version of "Lady Chatterley" that she has never again taken a frankly sexual role. In France, actresses are often celebrated for such risk-taking. Sometimes they become stars, objects of worship themselves.

The only semi-informative, semi-interesting thing I could find about Brisseau online and in English is this Film Comment piece. "Choses Secretes" can be bought here and Netflixed here.



posted by Michael at February 17, 2005


With all thie stupid francophobia going around the blogosphere, it's nice to see someone celebrating French culture, specifically Franch film, which is one of the proudest aspects of their culture.

My favorite (relatively) recent French films:

Rien ŕ Faire
Harry ... un ami qui vous veut de bien
Se Souvenir des Belles Choses
Swimming Pool

Hell, even less impressive French films like Comme un Image and Confidences Trop Intimes blow most films away in terms of stylish intelligence and subtle insight into the human condition.

Posted by: kid charlemagne on February 18, 2005 9:48 PM

I'm a little confused. Is there really an orgy scene in a chateau, or are you just leading me on?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 18, 2005 10:09 PM

almost Transylvanian in her beauty

The name Seyvecou needs only "s" in front of "c" to sound Romanian...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 18, 2005 10:15 PM

your notes makes me want to see the movie! meanwhile, i'm commenting on the films showing right now at the rendez vous with french cinema 2005 on my own blog including téchiné's new film Les Temps Qui Changent.

Posted by: Abha Dawesar on March 16, 2005 12:34 AM

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