Secret Defense Blu-ray Review: Twisty Secrets Hampered by Indefensible Direction

This French drama gets off to a promising start when a scientist named Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) learns that her father was possibly killed by a longtime family friend instead of dying accidentally. This shocking revelation leads her to seek out the friend, Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), to try to learn the truth before her brother takes retribution into his own hands. The twisty story gradually unfolds into a tale of unresolved family trauma that has the potential to explain two deaths while possibly leading to more.

Bonnaire and Radziwilowicz are coolly effective in what is essentially a two-hander, but director Jacques Rivette seems to have instructed them to play their roles as affectless as possible. Even during the anguish of a shocking accidental murder, the two leads seem mostly nonplussed and continue speaking in flat, monotone voices as if they were simply discussing the day’s weather. Very little emotions play across their faces, so we’re largely left with studying their eyes to gauge their feelings and reactions. It’s a strange approach, but somehow also feels genuinely French.

While the story is intriguing as it slowly unfolds, and wraps up with a satisfying full-circle conclusion, it’s entirely too long at three hours. Rivette seems to have forgotten that he was making a movie, not a limited series, and it’s a shame because there is a worthy sub-two hour story lurking in the weeds. He doesn’t commit the crime of throwing in needless subplots to pad the runtime. Instead, he repeatedly lets the camera roll during the times his characters are moving from point A to B. The most egregious deployment of this useless device is a 15-minute swath of wasted time where Sylvie wordlessly navigates train changes and long rides to reach Walser’s country estate, even sleeping for part of the trip. The excessive time acts to dissipate the power of the story.

The film has received a new 4K restoration for this Blu-ray release, and the results are impressive. The images are free of all defects, with colors that appear natural and consistent through all scenes. Black tones are a bit washed out, but suitable for its era. Sound is presented in 2.0 stereo, perfectly acceptable for a soundscape that has very little happening aside from sporadic dialogue. There’s not even a score to pass the time during the film’s frequent meanderings, so sound is largely an afterthought here, but is efficiently clear of flaws when utilized. Aside from a re-release trailer and a commentary track by a film professor, there are no other bonus features. 

While Secret Defense has a fine plot and serviceable performances by its leads, Rivette’s flat direction skews it closer to the banal dramas of Claude Chabrol than the suspenseful mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock. In the hands of a different director, the story could have become a taut, highly charged classic. Instead, plot progression is hampered by dull interludes and emotionless performances, killing its tension and momentum. 

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Steve Geise

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