Apr. 28, 2004 - Issue #445: Rolling Up The Rim
Two women sleep their way to the top of the corporate ladder in Secret ThingsBack in 1933, just before the dawn of the Production Code era, Barbara Stanwyck made a great, racy movie called Baby Face in which she played a barmaid who uses her sexual wiles to climb her way to the top floor of the office building located above the basement speakeasy where she started out. Writer/director Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things could be read as sort of an arty remake of Baby Face—he has two heroines instead of one, he fills the film with a lot more explicit sex and he coats the whole thing with a sheen of cynical French intellectualism, but Secret Things is still a dirty old Barbara Stanwyck film at heart. We begin in a strip bar where Nathalie (Coralie Revel, a brunette bad girl who’s like a Parisian version of Alannah Myles) is a performer and Sandrine (blonde-haired Sabrina Seyvecou) tends bar. When they both get fired on the very same night, Nathalie proposes that Sandrine move into her apartment. It’s more than an act of charity; although both women insist that they’re not lesbians, Nathalie nevertheless adopts Sandrine as a kind of sexual pupil. She brings out Sandrine’s exhibitionist side, urging her to masturbate in front of her and to take off her underwear as they sit in a crowded subway station. Pleased with Sandrine’s progress, soon Nathalie decides it’s time for the two of them to go after bigger game: they both land secretarial jobs in a huge French corporation, intent on bedding the men who will help them get furthest ahead in the shortest amount of time. And sure enough, Sandrine quickly catches the eye of Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), a middle-aged office drone who falls hard for her newly honed powers of seduction. To quote Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, soon Sandrine is working so hard, she has to go to bed early every night. But Nathalie’s real target is Christophe (Fabrice Deville), the handsome but sadistic son of the corporation’s dying CEO and the man to whom control of the company will likely fall once his father is out of the picture—and it’s with the introduction of Christophe into the equation that Brisseau really starts testing the extent to which his audience is willing to play along with him. Up until this point in the film, Secret Things has simply been an intriguing, naughty little erotic thriller. The scenes where Nathalie keeps daring Sandrine to push the boundaries of her own sexuality are playful but genuinely arousing—and the fact that we don’t really know Nathalie’s true motives gives them a satisfying undercurrent of danger and mystery. But the character of Christophe takes the film into a bizarre new fantasy dimension: Brisseau has conceived of this fellow as a Sadean sexual tyrant with a creepy, inappropriately intimate relationship with his sexy sister, a guy who has treated his previous lovers so cruelly that one of them showed up at company headquarters, doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire right there in the lobby. And then, a few months later, it happened again! The plot gets more and more fantastic the more we see of Christophe, who I suppose is meant to symbolize the black, amoral heart of the corporate world, and by the end of the film, as we watch a panicky Sandrine (who has agreed to marry Christophe) runs around Christophe’s mansion where he’s presiding over an Eyes Wide Shut orgy, the script goes right off the rails. Except that’s not a really fair description—far from going “off the rails,” Brisseau obviously meant his film to end this way all along. In a strange way, Secret Things’ worldview is deeply moral. Nathalie keeps warning Sandrine that the worst thing that can happen to a seductress is to fall in love with her prey, but Brisseau sets up Christophe’s mansion as a nightmare vision of a world that’s completely absent of love. In other words, without love there’s nothing but cruelty and degradation. (Nathalie, meanwhile, breaks her own rule and falls in love several times—and she’s the only character whose story ends happily.) Secret Things is more interesting to think about than to watch. Brisseau’s low budget especially hurts him—the office scenes (and the orgy scenes) could have used the steely photographic glamour that Olivier Assayas brings to Demonlover, the other French tale of sex, sadism and big business that Metro Cinema is screening this weekend. And unlike the unforgettably brutal ending to Assayas’s film, Brisseau’s climactic scenes of sexual horror seem silly and campy instead of shocking. But taken together, these two films do tempt me to apply for an office position somewhere in France; here in Canada, the only sexual thing about my workplace are the 200 Viagra ads I get in my e-mail every morning. V Secret Things Written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau • Starring Sabrina Seyvecou, Coralie Revel, Roger Mirmont and Fabrice Deville • Zeidler Hall, The Citadel • Fri-Mon, Apr 30-May 3 (9:30pm) • Metro Cinema • 425-9212
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