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Secret Defense (Jacques Rivette) 1998   


    I would complain that I figured out the ending of Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense about two hours before it unspooled, but it was pointed out to me after I saw it that the film is an updating of the Elektra myth (though this eluded me initially, I clearly see it in retrospect), so I doubt the film’s goal was really unpredictability. Its roots probably deserve a lot of credit for the sturdiness of the plot, but what is exceptional about the film has little to do with its narrative. Within ten minutes the entire setup is laid bare, and it’s only a matter of time (a lot of time – the film is almost three hours long) before the inevitable happens. It’s probably no spoiler to mention that this is a revenge thriller, and Rivette uses this time to flesh out his characters and their actions to the point where the movie feels closer to a novel than cinema. The subject matter seems closer to Chabrol than typical Rivette, but the spotlight is as focused on the actor’s performances as it is in any of Rivette’s work.   


    Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays Sylvie, the main character is especially good here. She plays her retribution-seeking research scientist with enough fierce intelligence that you can actually believe that she is working on a cure for cancer. Her character evokes Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or Spellbound, since she has the same mixture of smarts,  beauty, and grace under pressure.  Everything that she does seems to be an extension of her frustration with the situation that the film puts her in. As she goes about her daily routine or rides on a train, we get a sense of her sense of determination. Her behavior seems consistently thought through and befitting of a scientist’s analytical mind, and the matter of fact way Rivette presents it makes even the relatively free from directorial scheming and unsentimental In the Bedroom feel like Hitchcock or Speilberg directed it.  


    The title Secret Defense ultimately has less to do with espionage than it does with more intimate secrets. The arms dealer in the film is misleadingly named Pax Industries, letting the viewer know that outward appearances aren’t always honest ones, and while the film’s tone is one that feels ill at ease with anything that it presents. There’s a lovely moment where the camera stops to linger at a group of workers in a plant, who work in a restricted area. The camera wants to get to the bottom of things as much as we do, and rewards our inquisitiveness. The tension arrives not out of chase scenes, but instead out of the dour interactions between characters. The film’s premise has been done a million times, and things always seem to unfold in unexpected ways, but Rivette resists shocking us with the twists. As they are presented, they seem the natural progression of the chain of events, and our focus stays on the complexities of character. If every thriller were as intelligent and thorough as Secret Defense, which eschews the nervous pace of most entries in the genre, they might be seen as less “fun” and more “good for you”, but I doubt we have to worry about that happening. 

* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman