SECRET THINGS

Written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau

With Coralie Revel, Sabrina Seyvecou and Fabrice Deville

**1/2
SECRET THINGS is a put-on  that takes itself extremely seriously. Kicking off with a first reel bordering on Skinemax softcore porn, it pushes the viewer’s buttons much like its protagonists jerk other people around. Fairly controlled in mood for its first two thirds, it then introduces an anti-hero who stages orgies (in obvious parody of EYES WIDE SHUT) when not spouting Nietzschean aphorisms and bizarre religious references. The angel of death makes a few cameo appearances. By that point, my hopes for the film as anything more than a goofy whatsit had also died.

Nathalie (Coralie Revel) and Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou) work in a strip club. Nathalie is a dancer, Sandrine a bartender. One night, both get fired after a manger suggests that Sandrine start turning tricks.. Nathalie invites Sandrine, who’s on the verge of getting evicted from her tiny room, to stay with her. Giving  lessons in the ways of wanking and fucking her way to the top,  she gets Sandrine to experiment sexually. The two women find jobs at the same bank and get to work on seducing their bosses in order to maintain power. Christophe (Fabrice Deville), a handsome yet extremely unpleasant man, is the heir to the business’ fortune and their ultimate target.

Brisseau’s reflexivity is apparent from the very beginning. Lit like a Rembrandt painting, Nathalie lies in bed. After stroking herself, she gets up, walking awkwardly. We then discover that she’s actually performing onstage at a strip club. She considers herself the consummate femme fatale.  Her pedagogy  consists of ways to manipulate men by cutting off one’s emotions and - even while flaunting sex - libido, although she can’t always follow her own advice. If the film were made now, I can imagine Brisseau taking a cue from THE FOG OF WAR and structuring it as a series of lessons. 

Like many films big and small (from Russ Meyer’s FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! to CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE and KILL BILL, VOL. 1), SECRET THINGS rests on the fine line between ogling or fetishizing strong women and genuinely respecting and admiring them. Does the empowerment exist to justify the T&A or are those wires terminally confused? SECRET THINGS is a straight male fantasy, especially  about female bisexuality. That’s as obvious as the fact that it’s in French. It’s also a fantasy about class and the workplace. The two fantasies combine explosively, but not particularly enlighteningly.  Neil LaBute’s IN THE COMPANY OF MEN is an obvious touchstone for SECRET THINGS, but Brisseau’s insistence on the specifically sexual nature of his heroine’s travails is his own invention.

Delacroix, the first man seduced by Nadine and Sandrine, seems like a fairly nice, genuinely vulnerable guy. Naturally, he falls, managing to keep his position at the bank only through Sandrine’s kindness. The women’s next target, Christophe,  is a larger-than-life character who derails any pretensions of naturalism. Once he appears, important moments are signaled by very loud blasts of classical music. He challenges God to punish him - and in a roundabout way, He does, but not before lots of over-the-top symbolism.

It’s become a commonplace for art films to justify showing extremely explicit, even real sex by  offering a grim view of sexuality. Brisseau certainly intends to turn his audience on, but sex in SECRET THINGS is a means of manipulation, rather than communication or pleasure. (No wonder it emphasizes masturbation so much.)  Love is a weakness, which just allows one to be used. Kindness is a rare gesture, one often exercised as a willful reminder of power.  Sandrine narrates the film,  which becomes her story  even if it doesn’t seem that way initially.

In the end, SECRET THINGS goes off the rails, growing increasingly silly. Brisseau refrains from showing his hand by making the OTT melodramatic tone overtly comic:  the more risible moments could be intended seriously. Laughing at films about sex is a depressingly common American response (one not helped by the likes of Catherine Breillat’s ROMANCE), but this one is outrageous enough that it’s unavoidable. Unfortunately, it’s also laughable as a morality play, drawing on notions of human nature stemming mostly from cheap fiction. Unlike LaBute, Brisseau doesn’t have much sense of workplace dynamics. At Christophe’s bank, everyone seems too busy having sex or masturbating to get much done. I suppose the sexual power struggles serve as a metaphor for larger ones, but in the end, economic power looks like a symbol of sexual mastery: cock and pussy have an iconic power all their own. Brisseau’s delirium  makes mincemeat out of his agenda.