It doesn't take long to figure out what the secret is in Claude Miller's A Secret. The surprising part is the number of levels to it. Based on true events and spanning 50 years, the film tells the story of a Jewish family's plight in France before, during and after World War II.
The movie begins in the summer of 1955 at a swimming pool, where Tania (Cécile de France) tries to convince her frail, tentative son Francois to jump in. The story immediately leaps 30 years into the future, where Francois - all grown up and played by Mathieu Amalric, so excellent in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and so evil in the latest James Bond adventure - reflects on his life.
As a child, he imagined a "phantom brother," a stronger and better-looking version of himself, someone who can, he says, "rise above my failures." The boy's self-esteem isn't helped any by his athletic father Maxime (Patrick Bruel), who's embarrassed and frustrated by his weak son (he repeatedly reminds Francois that his conception was an accident).
A few years later, when Francois turns 15, a family friend tells him about his mom and dad's pre-war lives, which were nothing like he imagined. Both were married to other people; Maxime even had a son, a strong, fit boy adored by his father. It's now 1936, and a new cast of characters surfaces. Propelled by old-fashioned filmmaking and storytelling, A Secret is a solid but occasionally stilted period piece that recounts its three tales with crisscrossing and connecting narratives. Director Miller explores identity (Maxime distances himself from his Jewish heritage), ghosts from the past (turns out Francois' "phantom brother" wasn't all that made-up) and long-buried secrets (which tie the family to many other European Jews). It's pretty obvious where things are headed, so the film's emotional payoff isn't as strong as it could be. Still, this reflective drama concentrates the Holocaust to a personal scale, while remaining sadly universal.