At one point in A Secret, the infamous footage of the liberated concentration camps sends a Franco-Jewish schoolboy into a paroxysm of anger. You can sympathize — those emetic films of emaciated prisoners and mass graves are among the grisliest images ever captured; they inevitably provoke visceral responses, and they don’t even have sound. Or color! But that’s the point — the Holocaust doesn’t need, nor can it stand, cinematic embellishment. It’s overwhelming enough. Director Claude Miller, however, seems to disagree; unfortunately, he doesn’t trust his film’s Holocaust tragedy to speak for itself, ultimately sacrificing A Secret’s sporadic subtlety for aggressive tear jerkin’. Featuring several of France’s foremost actors, and shot with typical period-piece elegance, the film concerns François (Mathieu Amalric as an adult) as he uncovers his parents’ devastating experiences during WWII, which they’ve kept — you guessed it — a secret. While tripping over two framing devices (two too many), A Secret works through a ripping core yarn to explore infidelity and lust during wartime. Miller, like Jesus, ultimately pitches adultery as thoughtcrime, and the film’s offending characters are accordingly punished with a lifetime of guilt and bad karma. But, the overstuffed movie asks, shouldn’t culpability be the Nazis’ alone? No matter, there’re more important questions here, like: at this point, what’s the purpose of Holocaust movies? Do they have anything new to offer? Are they worth running the risk of desensitization through repetition? As A Secret ends, it cues treacly piano music over a montage of the Names of the Dead. If no more genuine an elicitor of emotion than a television studio’s applause sign is necessary for Miller to make the slaughter of millions seem meaningful, consider the dead insulted.
Opens September 5 at IFC Center