How seriously should we take a film like Secret Things, Jean-Claude Brisseau's erotic slice-of-life-cum-morality-tale about two working-class women who use sex to achieve power in the corporate world? Seriously enough -- once you strip away its decorations and get down to the bone.
The way I've just described Brisseau's film doesn't begin to touch upon its strangeness: Its climax -- in every way you wish to imagine that word -- is literally a vision of Hell on Earth, complete with flames, orgies and a strapping blue-eyed Devil (plus a sinewy She-Devil who crashes his party). This stuff we could have done without, not necessarily because it's so over-the-top, but because Brisseau had some good things going before he made the choice to take it just a little too far.
Secret Things opens in what looks a like a bedroom, and not just because we see a naked woman in bed. She's touching herself, then quivering with ecstasy, then walking about, cat-like and full frontal, as if in a dream. Surely this can't be -- a stage? But it is. The woman is Nathalie (Coralie Revel), the audience is rapt, and the mousy barmaid, Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), is fascinated with her audacity.
That night, the women become friends, and Nathalie begins their camaraderie by teaching Sandrine a bit about her sexuality. Soon they concoct a plot: They'll get jobs in a big corporation, seduce men there, make the men fall in love, and then dump them like yesterday's trash. It's all about how these working girls can use their painful life lessons about men and sex to control their economic captors, and for a while, it seems to work.
But Secret Things is a grim fable as well as a story of class rage. Sandrine has no trouble controlling the middle class in the form of Delacroix, her gentle, sincere, unhappily married, handsomely 50-year-old boss. It's not so easy for the gals to put one over on Christophe, the capricious, dynamic, gorgeous young son of the company's owner whose sex life is his life.
When Secret Things keeps it real, Brisseau offers some worthy (if bleak) insights about sex, commerce and the dangerous crossroads of the two. ("Sex enslaves you," Nathalie says. "The slave must be the other.") His movie, sharply acted, has an appropriate melancholy, a sexual frankness that only the French do this well, and a message that finally comes out foursquare in favor of pure, honest love. Some of his characters' actions have a certain aura of silliness about them. But then, who knows? These are secret things. So maybe, behind closed doors, some people do live like this. And maybe, in their dark secret places, some women, when they plaster on their socially mandated smiles and flash their pearly whites, are smiling -- teeth bared -- down there, too. In French, with subtitles. Squirrel Hill