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Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002)


    Equal parts Olivier Assays’ demonlover and Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things is an exaggerated fable of sexual politics and comic elegance. Filled with one jaw-dropping sequence after another, each one elevating the stakes in its fiercely competitive battle of the sexes, Secret Things assumes hilariously operatic dimensions by the time it reaches its third act, and only grows more audacious from there. The opening scene’s cock-tease and the revelation of the audience that follows accurately suggest that the film will gladly leave logic at the door if it might better provoke, and provoke it does. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship of two seemingly opposite women as they fuck their way to the top of the social ladder, Secret Things might not be politically correct, or even that relevant to the real world, but it certainly addresses (and possibly indulges in) a certain type of male fantasy that is all too common in cinema.


    After the manager at the club the two of them work at tries to promote himself to pimp, man-eating stripper Nathalie (Coralie Revel) and timid barmaid Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou) quit their jobs and quickly befriend one another. Sandrine confesses that she’s long admired Nathalie’s ability to pleasure herself in front of a crowd, and soon an under-the-cover masturbation session becomes Sandrine’s debut, of sorts. The two quickly begin upping the ante by walking the streets naked but for long jackets and by pleasuring themselves in front of strangers. Masturbation here becomes an ends to a means; a stimulant devised to ensnare those that take pleasure in watching the act, and one could suggest that Brisseau employs similar tactics with his audience. By the time the women apply their techniques to the game of corporate ladder-climbing, the film has become a challenging examination of gender relationships. Self-pleasure begins as self-realization here and onanism is a form of empowerment, but it soon becomes obvious how the seemingly harmless sex games that are played are part of a larger power-struggle. The moment a man realizes a woman is playing with herself on a subway platform, the mood shifts, both between the characters and the audience members watching the film. Suddenly, this harmless exhibitionism is making suppositions on behalf of the voyeur. To put it more succinctly, self-abuse grants power to these women, who promptly begin to abuse that power. As the women rise in ranks, they grow bolder, and the games that they play only take on a greater charge.


    In Secret Things, everyone’s so forthright about their sexual proclivities and mindgames that the movie scarcely has subtext. At one point early in the film, Nathalie blithely recalls how her mother compared the battle of the sexes to the class struggle. Inevitably, the story moves in that direction as it develops. The elaborate plan hatched by the two women early on to use their sexual prowess and smarts to rise in stature is explained in detail, and much of the film details, almost predictably, how that plan comes to fruition. Of course, Brisseau tosses in a few surprises, and the sense of danger grows more tenable as the stakes are raised. Real tension begins to emerge once Christophe (Fabrice Deville) enters the scene. Presented as the women’s ultimate target, this rich playboy incessantly uses women, apparently breaking them to the point where they immolate themselves. As Nathalie and Sandrine move into his world, the movie grows increasingly baroque. Two sequences, one featuring incest by proxy, the other an orgy similar to the one in Eyes Wide Shut, especially hammer home the class differences that exist here, if only because their level of perversity seems beyond those who have to concern themselves with worldly pursuits. The great joke of the movie is that he’s no different than bar owner in the film’s first sequence who wants the two women to whore themselves to a customer, except in that he has the power to turn his fantasies into reality. Furthermore, as appalling as Christophe is, there’s no escaping the feeling that Nathalie and Sandrine’s attempts to use sex to reduce him to their pawn are just as vindictive. When Secret Things ends, it appropriately questions what it is that these women are really after and if they’ve achieved anything at all.




Jeremy Heilman