There’s a certain, distinctive sound — at least there was in the days before six-channel digital mixes came into vogue, with their full dynamic range and dead-empty silences — made by a woman’s moans on a film’s soundtrack. Especially if you’re watching a worn print, the sound will be distorted. Every gasp surges up from near-silence, the speaker crackling with each breath drawn. It’s a harsh sound, not much like the noises that real people make. But it’s also a very distinctive sound. The dirtier the film print that you’re watching, the more noise that ecstasy makes.
The print of Secret Things that was screened for critics in New York was pretty dirty, in more ways than one. The frequent heavy breathing had that familiar movie-sex sound, and there was also a strange thumping noise rising up in the silence between drawn breaths. (I was with Steve Erickson, and he remarked afterward that he almost mistook that sound for the lub-dub of a heartbeat in the film’s audio mix.) Maybe that’s why the first few reels of this film have the low-down, disreputable feel of old-school sexploitation. I thought of those nude-for-art’s sake Euro-horror pictures from the likes of Jean Rollin.
In fact, the opening sequence of Secret Things is very similar to that of Rollin’s Vampyros Lesbos, with a nude Nathalie (Coralie Revel) masturbating by candlelight. She gets up out of bed, struts a few steps, then sits in a chair and masturbates some more. She struts a few more steps, then drops to the floor, spreads her legs wide and finishes herself off. Tracking off to the right, the camera reveals that she is performing on a stage, the nightclub patrons who acknowledge her with polite applause mirroring the movie audience, sitting in the darkness outside the movie world and looking in.
Secret Things is a film, in part, about liking to be watched — and by the very nature of cinema, it’s implicitly about liking to watch. That state of spectatorship is shared by the film’s director, who runs his actresses through a variety of softcore porn-film paces, by the human voyeurs who populate its narrative, and of course by the moviegoers who view it. But because Brisseau is willing to follow through intellectually on the titillating premise, it’s also about different levels of exploitation, and how the exploited underclass (not just the poor, but the female poor) might seek to turn the tables.
Watching Nathalie from a distance in that opening sequence is the prim, pretty barmaid Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), experiencing the first stirrings of what will become a scheming sexual relationship. The two women bond when the club’s owner tries to pimp Sandrine to a regular customer; Nathalie defends her, declaring that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do. The owner agrees, but displays a handful of money and declares that it’s her choice — her dignity and autonomy versus the money to pay her back rent. That’s a distillation of how exploitation really works in an allegedly free capitalist society – those who control the wealth can exert overpowering influence over those who have nothing, and yet the poor are expected to embrace some degree of illusory freedom. Nathalie wants to manipulate her social standing as well as her vulva, and instructs Sandrine clearly: carefully select your men according to the economic station they hold. Choose when to provide sex and when to withhold it. Never allow yourself the luxury of falling in love.
This may sound like a tongue-in-cheek variant on Dangerous Liaisons, and I suppose on one level it is. On another level, the early sections play like a series of episodes on the road to feminine self-actualization. There’s one funny and sexy scene where Sandrine exposes herself in a subway station at Nathalie’s urging, with most of the men around her oblivious; in another, Sandrine directs the younger woman to masturbate beneath a blanket and then, once she finds her rhythm, to pull the blanket away. Like the stage performance that opens the film, these scenes are not short – each constitutes a significant chunk of the narrative. They’re unabashedly sensual, and the actresses are terrific in them. Revel is dark and handsome, with a face that reveals itself in new ways every time Brisseau’s camera catches it from a different angle and a body to match; Seyvecou has a blue-eyed freshness yet ably transforms herself as the film progresses and the two women began to swap personality traits, Persona-style.
Nowhere is the weird balance Secret Things consistently strikes between the sublime and the ridiculous more apparent than in the scene where Sandrine’s employer Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), a middle-aged businessman whom the women have identified as a suitable target for destruction, checks up on her on a sick day. He finds her front door unlocked and bedroom wide open. Of course she’s in there, kneeling on the floor and finger-fucking Nathalie, when Delacroix arrives. Brisseau shoots the two women making love in the soft light with an unmoving camera, explicitly mimicking Delacroix’s point of view — of course he just stands there, gaping and gobsmacked — and also highlighting the similarity of their bodies and the mechanical nature of their sex act. You can read the scene as inept and unintentionally funny, or you can find in it a very dry joke having to do with the notion that men are horny, hapless dogs easily manipulated by any beautiful woman sporting a fab body and ravenous sexual appetites who aspires to fucking with their heads. (It’s similarly funny when Sandrine schemes to ingratiate herself to him by capitalizing on his status as a Mama’s boy.) Brisseau never goes into tragic-romantic mode, a la Louis Malle’s Damage, nor does he tip his hand by playing it as outright comedy. And the subtext remains intriguing – its easy to take a rooting interest in working girls as they go up against The Man. In fact, it’s a little depressing when one of them turns out to be a sucker.
So what’s silly about this is all the sex and nudity, which lends an aura of dorky fantasia to the entire exercise. And what’s exciting about it is, right, all the sex and nudity. In some ways Secret Things is thrilling — partly because Revel and Seyvecou are fabulous babes, yes, but also because Brisseau is reclaiming a potent mode of storytelling that has been hijacked by lowbrow narratives for so long that audiences — at least American audiences — snap into ironic-distance mode the moment a naked boobie appears on the screen. (This is why audiences rejected Eyes Wide Shut, whose dreamlike approach to impersonal sexuality is seen and raised by Brisseau, and why certain segments of the U.S. population got so twisted up about Janet Jackson’s right tit — there is no room for irony during as guileless an American spectacle as the Super Bowl.) The idea of being turned on by a film and simultaneously taking it seriously is so alien these days that when a picture like The Dreamers is actually released with an adults-only NC-17 rating, it’s time to start writing headlines.
By the time the last reel spools through the projector, Secret Things has plunged so deep into melodrama, with an appropriately operatic soundtrack, that viewing it becomes a disorienting experience. What sort of heaviness is portended by that ominous Angel of Death who graces the opening sequence and reappears in later scenes (and, if reports are to believed, in other Brisseau films)? What’s up with Christophe (Fabrice Deville), the slick heir apparent to corporate fortune who makes out with his sister and seems to represent – occasionally hilariously, as when he starts setting fire to 500-pound notes over the dinner table – everything that’s wasteful, turgid and cruel in this world? Are we meant to be moved politically or ideologically by the arrival on the scene of a luxury car branded inconspicuously with the legend “American Limousines?”
And what, after all, about all that moaning? Maybe it’s real ecstasy, expressing the gratification of being watched, or of taking sensual pleasure into one’s own hands, or maybe it’s just part of a performance piece, a whopping fake orgasm delivered by an ambitious phony. Maybe — is this too ridiculous? — it’s the heavy breathing of the working class, oppressed by rich weirdos who control the world’s money and power, yearning and plotting to turn the tables. But however you decode its sexually charged images and sounds, Secret Things is a bracingly personal film; it’s a world-class misanthrope’s erotic fantasy. B