Secret Defense

(Jacques Rivette, 1998)

Despite some dire predictions and a lot of grumbling, cinema is alive and well-but in hiding. Great movies are out there-they’re being made all over the world-and are as great as ever. But try to find them and you run into difficulties. If you live outside a major urban center, you’re essentially shut out from the wide world of cinema. You might as well shift your interests to 15th century Italian art-as modern and high-tech as the medium is, seeing a movie in its intended form can be as difficult as coming into contact with a particular painting or sculpture (or more so-you can always travel to Italy, but you have to depend on programmers or distributors to see a particular film). I wish that it were only a problem for non-city-dwellers; in the US, anyway, certain movies are almost impossible to find anywhere in the country. And if this sounds overly dramatic or unrealistic, consider the fact that the latest film by Jacques Rivette – one of the most exciting and important directors at work now and for the last 40 years – enjoyed very limited screening in New York City: it played several times over the course of one week or so at Anthology Film Archives last November and then once several months later at the Alliance Française. Due to little publicity, only very few were in the woods to hear when this tree fell.

There’s a straightforward, relatively conventional crime-movie plot at the heart of Secret Défense, but this is not the place to turn to get a taste of good, old-fashioned, efficient storytelling. Rivette has a lot more in mind than simply telling a story. Or, to put it differently, telling a story is exactly what he wants to do, but his conception of what constitutes a story is much freer, more expansive, and more cinematic than that of the average filmmaker. He’s less interested in narrating, in presenting the situations and plot twists to us, than encouraging us to find our own way into the story. Secret Défense is a movie about cinema, but not in a pretentious, distracting way; it’s not about cinema explicitly. It’s a film that experiments with and explores the potentialities of moviemaking, of cinematic storytelling, and so how it tells its story becomes as important as the story it tells.

Above all, Secret Défense plays with the tension lying at the heart of all narrative movies between the impulse to tell a story and the purely photographic, documentary-like nature of movies. As much pleasure as there is to be had from a tale well-told, a film that is content to simply narrate falls far short of what movies are capable of. What makes movies almost magical is their ability to inspire an often breathtaking sense of immediacy, of physicality, to create worlds which, even if they have a tenuous connection to actual reality [Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), for instance], create their own, separate reality, concrete and entirely convincing. Books and plays create worlds of course, but these blossom in our imaginations; great movies (and even certain not-so-great movies) wrap themselves around our whole bodies, they make us feel physically present. But this can only happen if we’re allowed to settle in to the film. The onward rush of a narrative can work against the movie’s immediacy if it’s not done right. A great movie doesn’t narrate a story, it lets us inhabit it.

It’s no coincidence then that movies are often at their most beautiful when, plot-wise, nothing is happening; when a character, silent, performs a physical task [think of several movies by Bresson, especially A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and Mouchette (1967); every movie Satyajit Ray ever made; and, more recently, the last shot of Big Night (Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, 1996), and much of Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1999)] or simply when we are allowed to experience the passing of time [above all, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)]. Moments like these have a special purity. The distractions of a scripted story-line, of dramatic structure, fall away and we’re free to enter into and explore the world of the film, to observe and perceive rather than to simply follow along.

The story, though, is important-to take it away entirely would rob the movie of much of its humanity. In his Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer writes that the documentary, “[c]onfined, by definition, to the rendering of our environment,.misses those aspects of potentially visible reality which only personal involvement is apt to summon.” And he goes on to quote Paul Rotha: “One of the most serious shortcomings of the documentary film has been its continued evasion of the human being” (1). This obviously fails to do justice to documentaries like Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994) or Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994), but these films depend on interviewing their subjects. It’s true that a movie that’s content to simply sit back and observe unmediated reality will tend to be emotionally limited. The story is a movie’s passport into the hearts and souls of its characters, without whom its world would be barren and distant. The trick is to balance the sense of immediacy, of place and period and vivid physical reality, with the dramatic; to create a living, breathing world but also to populate it. The beauty of a movie like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman is that it manages to reveal something of Jeanne to us without taking recourse to any sort of dramatic situations or conflicts (until the last moment). Everything we learn about the character we learn by observing her in her environment, going about her daily routine, by being allowed to share her solitude and the emptiness of her life. It seems to me that almost all character-based movies would benefit by having a little bit of Jeanne Dielman in them, by letting us observe the characters alone with themselves and by giving us more time and space to settle into and inhabit their worlds. Movie-time is of course very different from experiential-time, but it’s exhilarating to watch a movie which narrows the gap between the two.

Secret Défense has, happily, more than a little Jeanne Dielman in it (not a fair way to put it of course, since Rivette was probably an influence on Akerman). Secret Défense has more of a plot than Jeanne Dielman-it has, in fact, a relatively complicated story line-but it is as much about the spaces between the action as it is about the action itself. It’s ostensibly a mystery/thriller, revolving around Sylvie (played beautifully by Sandrine Bonnaire), a single, troubled Parisian scientist. The movie begins rather abruptly with the appearance of Sylvie’s brother, Paul (Gregoire Colin), who announces, dramatically but mysteriously, that their father, whose death several years ago was thought to be accidental, was murdered. What’s more, he’s convinced that the murderer was Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), their father’s former right-hand man who now lives in their childhood home and maintains a friendship (and perhaps more) with their mother. So far, so conventional; and although Rivette’s direction is less so, at first his strategy seems to be nothing more than to take a relatively straightforward Hollywood-type plot and slow it down, to take it very seriously. It’s distressing because nothing in this very exposition-heavy first half-hour seems to justify treating the story so seriously. It’s clear that he wants to take the emphasis off the plot, but less so that there’s anything else there to concentrate on.

Secret Défense‘s impact, though, is nothing if not cumulative. Realizing that her brother’s self-destructive intention to revenge their father is irreversible, Sylvie resolves to travel to their childhood home and kill Walser herself. And it’s here that Rivette’s approach begins to pay off. As she travels out of Paris to the countryside, rather than treating us to the perfunctory series of shots of Sylvie boarding the train, Sylvie looking out the window, Sylvie’s view out the window, Sylvie arriving at the train station, etc., Rivette allows us to share her journey; not in real time, of course, but in something quite suggestive of it. He makes what is usually transitional and thus hurried over or merely alluded to, into something like a set piece. Her journey becomes a sort of mini-Jeanne Dielman, a chance to sink into the movie, to observe, at great length and with great intimacy, Sylvie’s character. And the surprise is that, instead of losing us, the story becomes far more interesting, deeper and more mysterious, as a result. Letting us share the character’s sense of time brings us closer not only to her but to her story-we’re not being told her story, we’re experiencing it with her. This emphasis on what happens between the conventionally important moments ironically focuses our attention on what matters in the story, on Sylvie’s thoughts and emotions, on what she knows and doesn’t know, and, thanks to the interminable wait separating her resolution and her action, on the momentousness of what she intends to do.

When Sylvie does finally arrive and does finally act, the moment is all the more dramatic because of the long, uneventful journey we’ve just gone through. It has something of the momentousness of real-life drama. The action itself is as brief as can be-after the slow, patient build-up preceding it, it immediately gives way to an equally quiet aftermath. But the moment echoes loudly; it rings out in the desert-like emptiness (empty only with regard to dramatic incident) of the long slow passages of the film. This is not the only decisive action in the movie, just as Sylvie’s journey is not her last. The story of Secret Défense comes in waves-long stretches of quiet weave in and out of long stretches of talkiness-and the action swings, pendulum-like, from Paris to the country, and back, and back again. Thanks to this unusual pace, each moment that could be considered a plot development feels like something much more authentic. Life doesn’t consist of a rapid succession of dramatic moments; every important action in our lives struggles to stay afloat amidst a sea of contemplation, interpretation, and stabilization, stretching away on all sides. Secret Défense manages to tell its story without being false to this quality of experience.

The danger of Rivette’s approach, of course, is boredom. And indeed, the movie feels extremely long, much longer than its three hour running time. But it’s not boring for a second; it needs to feel long. To deny us a sense of duration is a great cinematic sin, a waste of one of the medium’s most basic qualities, but it’s a sin that Rivette, the master of the generous running time, is never guilty of. It’s not that you’re unaware of the time passing; it’s precisely that you are aware of it, but aware of it as you would be if you were within the movie rather than without. In this case, to say that Secret Défense feels almost endless is a great compliment; we are so engrossed in the world it creates that we don’t feel as if we’re contained within a movie, with an artificially ordained beginning, middle, and end, or a set running time. It has a life-like pace and a life-like emphasis on the moment rather than on some eventual conclusion or narrative momentum, and as a result, it puts you in a mood such that you’re ready to keep watching forever-boredom seems inconceivable.

Rivette’s approach seems to play against most movies’ narrative thrust, but it’s not as if he’s simply applied his method to a story he grabbed out of a hat. As the movie progresses, the story and his treatment of it grow together, intertwine. His real-time, almost motionless approach turns out to be perfectly suited to, even inseparable from, the material because the story itself is nothing like as straightforward as it appeared. What seemed familiar at first grows more and more repetitive, circular, and mysterious. Each action making up the plot refers backwards and forwards-its present-time existence is overwhelmed by its past and future resonances, its mirroring of earlier or later events. Walser’s murder of Sylvie’s father takes place before the beginning of the movie-it is significant purely for having given birth to everything that follows. We witness the other murders, but what we see is only a kind of foundation, on which accumulates the relationships among the three. Rivette brings this out by de-emphasizing these moments and giving greater attention to the immediate past and future, to the quiet on either side of the storm. The heart of the story consists of each action’s echo, so Rivette’s approach is the only appropriate one-he devotes plenty of time around the striking of each dramatic chord for the echo to sound.

There’s something puzzle-like, something very literary, about Secret Défense [the whole movie, and especially the scenes that take place in Sylvie’s childhood home, is reminiscent of the story played out in the haunted house in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)]. But it never becomes oppressive because the correspondences between past, present, and future are never exact. Each murder (there are two during the movie, one before) reflects the others but each is unique as well. Sylvie’s murder, like Walser’s, is made to seem accidental, but unlike Walser’s it is partially accidental. The murder committed by Veronique, the sister of Walser’s secretary and lover, who becomes involved in the second half of the film, is almost an exact repetition of the earlier one. Like Sylvie she intends to kill Walser and her intention is based on ignorance of the truth; but in this case she accidentally (on some level, anyway) kills the right person. At every step of the way, Rivette’s emphasis isn’t on resolution or explanation but on mystery itself, on ignorance of the truth. Just as each murder points away from itself, the relatively straightforward mystery which opens the film turns out to be a mystery obscuring a mystery obscuring a mystery, without end. The movie is full of explanation, but every explanation is a partial one, only calling attention to what it leaves unexplained.

Walser, from the very start, holds the key to the full truth and he guards it closely. But as his character becomes more and more complicated and more, not less, mysterious, his refusal to disclose what he knows becomes less diabolical and more intriguing. He hides his knowledge but he does so very openly and reluctantly. He would tell if he could, but his refusal is so final that we accept it as necessary, inevitable, and we concentrate instead on the other characters’ lack of knowledge. Walser is a god-like character, in full possession of the truth, gazing down upon Sylvie, Veronique, and Paul as they snatch at, struggle with, share, and withhold the little pieces of truth which he reveals to them. In truly Hitchcockian fashion, it’s not what Walser knows that’s important, but what the others don’t know. Rivette takes the emphasis off the substance of the secret because his true subject is the impossibility of resolution. The only resolution here is in repetition-there’s no beginning or end to this story, but there is a sense that what we’ve seen can be extended backward or forward, perhaps indefinitely. Secret Défense is about the aftermath of Sylvie’s father’s original crime, its unforeseeable but irrevocable aftershocks. But this is putting it in a linear, conventionally narrative way. The real progression of the movie is a progression backwards, further and further into the past. The movie performs a kind of archaeology of crime, unearthing the secrets that lie beneath secrets, and discovering finally the bottomlessness of every mystery.


  1. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1997, p. 212.

About The Author

Jared Rapfogel is an Associate Editor of Cineaste magazine and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema and CinemaScope.

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