Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Secret (Un Secret) -- identity, secrets, and symbols

Director: Claude Miller, 2007. (NR)

How well do you know your parents? Do you know the story of their romance and early life together? If you're like many this is mostly an unknown. Perhaps we know a smidgen; maybe they have shared a glimmer of their past with us, opening the curtain just enough for us to take a quick peek. Knowing our parents' past is a key theme of this slow but intriguing French drama.

As it starts, it's the 50s in Paris and seven-year-old François (Valentin Vigourt) does not know his parents' story. His father Maxime Grimbert (Patrick Bruel) is a gymnast and wrestler, while his mother Tania (Cécile De France) is a champion swimmer. Sadly, young François is small for his age and non-athletic. He is a disappointment to his father, though adored by his mother. With no real or deep knowledge of his parents and no siblings, François relies on his youthful imagination. He creates a romanticized version of his parents' past and invents for himself a fictitious elder brother, one who can do all the things he cannot. Where he fails, this apparition succeeds.

Knowing our parents is an important piece in our own identity. We have a name given us by our parents and carry a family name from our father (usually). This says who we are. But not knowing the story behind the name can leave us feeling empty, two-dimensional. We need to know who we are, where we have come from, so we can be better prepared to be and live in the present. Minus this knowledge there is a vacuum that we may fill in other ways. François chose to do it with imagination. Ultimately, though, our true identity is found when we follow Jesus. When this happens, we discover that our real Father is God Himself, as we are adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5). He created us (Isa. 49:5); he loves and accepts us (Jn. 3:16); he has plans for us (Jer. 29:11). We might not know our parents' story but we can certainly find out our Parent's story, as communicated to us in the Bible.

Miller interweaves two stories in this adaptation of Philippe Grimbert's truth-inspired novel. We see the young François in beautiful color. Juxtaposed to this we see the adult François (Matthieu Almaric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), 30 years later. He is a counselor who helps children open up. He gives therapy to children who are like he was years before, withdrawn, solitary, isolated. The modern-day Paris is contrasted in a misty monochrome, giving it a dream-like feel. Further, the adult François still has a strained relationship with his father. But a plot thread draws the two together to bring a form of reconciliation. Miller uses Zibigniew Preisner's (composer for the magnificent Bleu) hypnotic musical composition to underscore the human drama that is occurring on screen.

When François turns 15 (Quentin Dubuis), Louise (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gerard Depardieu), a family friend and nurse, tells him the truth of his parents past. This dark and shocking secret shatters his romantic illusions forever.

In dashing his dreams by revealing the titular "secret", the film forces us to consider the power of secrets. When we hold a secret it holds a power over us. Secrets, like lies, eventually come out into the open. We may not wish this to happen, but a knowing friend may inadvertently let it slip out, or, like here, that friend may choose to reveal what we choose to conceal. Secrets are best left alone. What secrets do we hide from our loved ones? One thing is for sure: God sees all and there are no secrets before his eyes (Psa. 33:13-14). We may fool our friends but we won't fool the Lord.

There are a pair of particularly poignant scenes that play out in the revealed secret. As a boy François discovers an old and mangy teddy bear in a suitcase in his parents' attic. When his mother sees this, she thrusts it back into the case and slams it shut, telling him it is full of fleas. Clearly it holds some emotional memories for her. Later, François throws it through a window, breaking the glass. But his father picks it up from the ground and holds it close to his chest. Again, there is something behind this cuddly animal. What does it represent? Why does it evoke such strong emotional responses from both parents?

The teddy bear is clearly a symbol, a treasured memento. As a symbol it represents something from his parents' past. Symbols are powerful. They can remind us of the past and its pains; they can offer hope of the future and its potential.

In the Christian faith, the cross is one of the most beloved symbols. Though it represents an old form of execution, this global symbol evokes so much more than this. It points us back to the death of Jesus on a wooden tree (Acts 5:30), executed as an innocent man for sins and crimes he did not commit. Two thousand years ago Jesus had to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem before he was nailed to it and left to die. But his death was a death for us, for the world (Rom. 6:10). But the cross points ahead, too, reminding us that Jesus rose from the grave (Acts 10:41). His resurrection offers hope to those who follow him. In Christ we can have life (Jn. 6:40). We can live in his resurrection power. Powerful indeed, is the symbol of the cross.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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