The Big Picture: Le Secret (18)

The Good Adultery Guide
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The Independent Culture

Director Virginie Wagon, starring Anne Coesens Michel Bompoil 107 mins

Following Under the Sand and Harry, He's Here to Help, Virginie Wagon's Le Secret is the latest in a terrific sequence of movies about marriage. That they all come from France is probably not coincidental: over there they take for granted that some filmgoers are grown-ups, and wish to be treated as such. To summarise the plot of Le Secret would suggest nothing out of the ordinary, yet in execution it's amazingly subtle and compelling. Marie (Anne Coesens) is an attractive 35-year-old woman who lives in middle-class contentment outside Paris with her husband François (Michel Bompoil) and their two-year-old son Paul. Out at work one afternoon – she sells fancy encyclopedias door-to-door – Marie calls on a client named Bill (Tony Todd), a black American who's minding the apartment for a pal.

Bill is reclusive but friendly: though he doesn't talk much French, he gets Marie to relax and stay for a Scotch. She chats about her life, something she evidently doesn't do very often; he listens, smiles a lot and talks plain English: "I live alone. But I need sex." It gets her thinking, and they meet again for another chat, another Scotch. The speed and delicacy with which Wagon and her co-writer Erick Zonca (they previously collaborated on The Dream Life of Angels) set this up is wonderfully assured; to hear people talk to one another like adults (rather than like screen actors) is a pleasure that's harder to come by than you might think. It's not that they say anything very profound to one another, either; Bill is open about his life ("I do nothing," he grins) and doesn't mind telling Marie about the casual relationship he has with another woman. When she finally succumbs – and it's very deliberately her decision – sex breaks the tension with the satisfying crack of a thunderstorm after sweltering heat.

What deepens and complicates her infidelity is that it happens within a perfectly good marriage. Who would suspect? Certainly not her husband, with whom she has got along happily for 12 years. They have a decent sex life; true, she's not as keen as he is on the idea of another child, but it's not a deal-breaker between them. They can discuss their relationship in a friendly, teasing sort of way, a little like Eric Rohmer's argumentative lovers. Yet Marie has an instinct that something's missing in her life, and whatever it might be is worth risking her marriage for. "I don't have arguments", she muses, "I have longings". The urgent afternoon couplings in Bill's apartment might not save her, but they at least reaffirm that her life is still her own. The quick thinking of the adulterer is concisely expressed in a scene where Marie, coming home from her lover's bed, suddenly dunks herself in the kid's bath to erase the scent of sex. If ever a film merited the title "Intimacy", it's this one.

Marie isn't cold-hearted or calculating about the affair, and she finds no relief in confiding it to anyone. "I'd have preferred you kept it from me," her mother says in pursed rebuke. She lets her husband find out by the simple expedient of coming home one evening with a love-bite throbbing on her neck. "I'm seeing someone," she says, and then drives him nuts by refusing to tell him anything else. "Then it'll become your story too, and I'll be lost." The aftershocks of this confession reverberate through the rest of the film. An overhead shot of the couple playing squash a little later speaks painful volumes: he thwacks the ball furiously, repeatedly, while she stands by, mute and miserable.

Matching the lean, intelligent script is a trio of top-notch actors. As Marie, Coesens is outstanding; like Juliette Binoche, she can convey a startling intensity beneath the alabaster calm of her skin. Unlike Binoche, she looks ordinary one moment and beautiful the next – in other words, she looks like a real person, and holds the camera's gaze wonderfully. The way she first yields to Bill, slowly undressing while he's on the phone upstairs, surprises herself as much as it does us.

As Bill, Todd carries himself with a magnificent imperial ease that avoids any trace of arrogance. He has hands as big as cattle-hocks and a voice as languorously deep as the Walrus of Love himself; he uses it in tandem with his big smile, yet seems perfectly indifferent to its effect. Given that Todd's most famous role hitherto is the monster in Candyman, you'd have to call this a breakthrough movie for him. In the thankless role of cuckolded François, Bompoil sways from benign complacency through uncomprehending rage to sozzled stupefaction. As the full force of the betrayal dawns he gradually sheds his slightly anonymous look, and reveals the cost of Marie's soul-searching in all its paralysing distress. Their final scene at a friend's wedding reception, where they both plunge fully clothed into the swimming pool, leaves the story teasingly in suspense. By this point, however, certain truths have been wrung from Le Secret, not the least of them how even in marriage, perhaps especially in marriage, men and women can be absolute strangers to one another.

Sometimes the old categories won't do. If you put the films of Peckinpah, Leone, Sirk, plus a handful of operas and romantic B-movies into a blender, the result would look a little like Tears of the Black Tiger (18). Hitherto most of us have known Thailand only through its cuisine, but it seems that something equally exotic and seductive has been going on in its cinema. Wisit Sasanatieng's film, a weird carnival of genres from which a love story comes out on top, is most remarkable for its extraordinary palette of colours (candy pink, crimson and turquoise the most popular) and for more blustering laughter than a whole season of Brian Blessed movies. It's thrilling, bloody, wildly imaginative and deeply absurd. I've never seen anything quite like it.