Acres and Acres of Nudity In Kinky French ‘Art’ Flick

Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things , which opens at the Quad Cinema on Feb. 20, is the director’s first film to get any kind of American theatrical distribution. Despite his poorly received debut feature, Les Croisées de Chemins (1975), Mr. Brisseau has managed to make nine films and for Secret Things , the director was honored by Cahiers du Cinema as 2002’s cinéaste of the year. Yet Mr. Brisseau’s overall reputation in France is more that of the trashy “bad boy” of French cinema-if such a designation means that much in the land of unbridled cinematic sexuality and nakedness.

To all the soft-core voyeurs among us, I should begin by whispering that Secret Things delivers the goods-and for prolonged periods of time. Forget the tedious teases of Eyes Wide Shut , the various tepid versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and even the louche lyricism of Last Tango in Paris . In Secret Things , two hitherto obscure but strikingly attractive French actresses named Sabrina Seyvecou and Coralie Revel fling caution-and every last vestige of clothing-to the wind. They simulate the various gratifications of the flesh, alone and together, in threesomes with this man or that, and ultimately as willing or unwilling participants in mass orgies-and all the while, they preserve a narrative-sustaining career arc as calculating gold-diggers seeking power over their employers through half-baked theories and stratagems.

Ms. Revel’s Nathalie opens the film as an anonymous nude figure writhing erotically in an initially intimate, almost abstract, seemingly private setting. As the camera extends the milieu and the performer moves forward, we realize that Nathalie is onstage in a small bar with fully occupied tables at which the male patrons sit, silently fixated on the provocative spectacle before them. The camera keeps moving forward to reveal another entranced spectator-a female bartender, Ms. Seyvecou’s Sandrine, who immediately becomes the narrator and point-of-view character.

Suddenly, surprisingly and very improbably, several men surge onto the easily accessible stage and are expelled by several other men in a confusing mêlée intended merely to bring bartender and stripper together, however clumsily, in a shared refusal to have sex with the customers of this seedy establishment.

After the two women are tossed unceremoniously into the street, they quickly decide to live together and form a joint venture, using their womanly wiles to find respectable employment as secretaries-a job for which they turn out to be superbly, if mysteriously, qualified. Many similar distracting discrepancies will follow; Mr. Brisseau makes no concessions, plausible or otherwise, in this stylized film. The color schemes are pleasantly pastel, and the sex scenes are never made ostentatiously ugly or ungainly, as in the matter-of-fact, shallow-focus manner of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And even when a showy display of Satanism enters the picture, Mr. Brisseau never sinks to the sadistic nastiness of the excruciating rape scene in the deplorable Irreversible .

Sandrine and Nathalie secure strategic positions at the same banking institution with ridiculous ease over a roomful of other applicants, simply by crossing and uncrossing their legs (in addition to wearing no underwear). We’re back in the wickedly facile melodramas that Douglas Sirk once made for Universal, All That Heaven Allows (1956) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), but with acres and acres of nudity to nudge the film along whenever the plot begins to sputter.

Sandrine sets out to seduce her immediate superior, Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), with the most old-fashioned vamping techniques, as well as by declaring her willingness to work overtime at no extra pay for the good of the firm. Delacroix is a fairly easy mark-a faithful married man with a pathetic mother complex. Sandrine and Nathalie exploit this fact by hiring a young man to stage a purse-snatching assault against Mère Delacroix (Dorothée Picard), which is conveniently thwarted by Sandrine, who just “happens” to be passing through the neighborhood. The hapless Delacroix is not at all suspicious of Sandrine, even when she comes close to nuzzling his neck as they go over the day’s reports. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Sandrine and Delacroix are misbehaving all over the office, generally in the vertical position.

Meanwhile, Nathalie has risen at the firm to become the confidential secretary of the elderly boss’ son and heir apparent, Christophe (Fabrice Deville). From her privileged perch, Nathalie is able to advise Sandrine in her various maneuvers, and for a time, the two women seem like mistresses of all they survey. But Christophe, a cold, kinky cynic, is more than a match for them. His creepy back story shows him as a child alone at home, sleeping with his mother’s corpse without notifying anyone of her demise. He has since achieved a fearsome reputation by driving women to suicide after he abandons them.

What keeps the movie going despite its many absurdities is the growing tension between Sandrine and Nathalie over the challenge to their plans posed by Christophe. One day, Christophe and his beautiful sister Charlotte (Blandine Bury)-with whom he has had a predictably incestuous relationship-enter Delacroix’s office to find him entangled in a sexual threesome with Sandrine and Nathalie.

This embarrassing moment has been preceded by the love-smitten Delacroix discovering Sandrine and Nathalie in flagrante delicto , after which he discards the last traces of bourgeois distaste to join in the fun and games. What Sandrine and Delacroix don’t realize until much later is that Christophe has been manipulating the whole situation through his power over Nathalie, now his enslaved mistress. As Christophe waits cold-bloodedly for his father to die so that he can inherit his father’s financial empire, it suits his purpose to keep Delacroix-whom Christophe’s father trusts more than he does his own son-in the picture. To present a reassuring façade of respectability, Christophe will then marry the humbly born Sandrine for her meritorious sacrifices for the firm. The wedding is staged, the orgy begins, the father dies, and Christophe is now free to divorce Sandrine. He is now at the summit of his powers, when the long-discarded Nathalie suddenly appears in the midst of the festivities to provide this often excessively improbable story with a curiously unexpected plot twist that ends the film as it began-with Sandrine gazing at Nathalie over a vast divide of lust and desire.

The 59-year-old Mr. Brisseau taught French for 20 years in the Parisian suburbs before he made his first film in 1975. Shown at an amateur film festival, it attracted the notice of director Eric Rohmer, also a former schoolteacher. Mr. Rohmer has remained a steadfast supporter of Mr. Brisseau’s work throughout all the storms of outrage from the critics, some of whom have more charitably categorized Mr. Brisseau’s themes as mysticism, morality and the violence that lurks under the surface of social life. However, his model here is less Rohmer than Luis Buñuel: The Bach and Purcell oratorios in the closing scenes of Secret Things evoke the mock-religiosity of Buñuel’s invocation of Handel’s Messiah in Viridiana (1961).

At a time when Janet Jackson is being rhetorically burned at the stake for defiling the sacred Super Bowl and imperiling the Republic-oops, one of her breasts is showing (in fleeting long shot yet!)-I feel dangerously subversive in liking a movie that may strike my inquisitors as being all tits and ass. If I ask for mercy for all us hardened sinners, it’s because I can remember a less licentious time when we all eagerly awaited the latest French “art” film for a glimpse of what Ms. Jackson bestowed on us briefly at the Super Bowl (that is, if we weren’t being distracted by her male companion’s periodic crotch-fondling). It would be grotesque to talk seriously about a double standard in this context, or about the suspicious priorities of an F.C.C. chairman who remains silent as media ownership is increasingly being concentrated in the well-manicured hands of a very few multinational magnates. “Grotesque” is perhaps too weak an epithet for these idiocies; “obscene” would be more appropriate. And in this admittedly digressive context, Secret Things emerges as a sweetly seductive entertainment.

Ripley Returns

Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game , from a screenplay by Ms. Cavani and Charles McKeown, is another film based on the Ripley novels of Patricia Highsmith. It will be shown sporadically at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center on Feb. 15, 19 and 20 as part of a series sponsored by Film Comment of 17 “Unsung Films from Around the World.” I was able to catch Ms. Cavani’s film on a cable channel and found it so engrossing, I wondered why it hadn’t been picked up by an American distributor.

Ms. Highsmith has never been among my favorite authors, and I’ve carefully avoided the debates among her admirers as to which of her works has been most faithfully adapted to the screen. Perhaps still the most famous of these is Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train , from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde (and an uncredited Ben Hecht), which is one of the favorite Hitchcock movies of people who don’t otherwise like Hitchcock. Robert Walker and Laura Elliott, in their respective incarnations of evil, steal the show from the pallid, goody-goody characters, awkwardly played by Farley Granger and Ruth Roman.

In Ms. Cavani’s film, there’s no moralistic let-down to interrupt the elegantdisplaysofevil.John Malkovich marvelously evokes an intuitive feeling for the aesthetic niceties of murder and other criminal pastimes. Yet his villainy is not limited to his own affinity for the dastardly; it also includes a gift for inducing others to embrace evil almost as avidly as he does. Dougray Scott and Ray Winstone play the two marionette-like victims of Ripley’s smooth-as-silk and infinitely adaptable machinations. Each patsy has stunning moments of dawning lucidity that make Ms. Cavani’s film arguably the most satisfying distillation of Highsmith’s nastiness, ingenuity and humor, with the added dividend of Mr. Malkovich’s diabolical charm and insouciance. Try not to miss it.

Magnificent Welles

Film Forum is launching its Orson Welles series on Friday, Feb. 20, with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Welles wrote the screenplay for Ambersons , based on the Booth Tarkington novel, and I must say that I much prefer it to Citizen Kane (1941). So sue me. Over the years, I’ve found the misogyny in Kane increasingly excruciating, and Ambersons ‘ marvelous variety of womanhood-represented in the performances of Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello and Anne Baxter-more and more exciting.

Acres and Acres of Nudity In Kinky French ‘Art’ Flick