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SECRET DEFENSE (director/writer: Jacques Rivette; screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer/Emmanuelle Cuau; cinematographer: William Lubtchansky; editor: Nicole Lubtchansky; music: Jordi Savall; cast: Sandrine Bonnaire (Sylvie Rousseau), Jerzy Radziwilowicz (Walser), Laure Marsac (Veronique/Ludivine), Gregoire Colin (Paul Rousseau), Francoise Fabian (Genevieve Rousseau), Christine Vouilloz (Myriam), Mark Saporta (Jules), Sara Louis (Carole), Bernadette Giraud (Marthe), Herzog Herzog (Sabine), Hermine Karagheuz (L’infirmière); Runtime: 166; Artificial Eye/Vanguard; 1998-France/Swiss/It.)
“Sandrine Bonnaire is a good reason to see this unconventional thriller that isn’t quite a thriller — yet it is.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s hard to get all worked up over the mystery of whether Pierre Rousseau the wealthy CEO of Pax Industries, a firm that manufactures guided missiles, was pushed or accidentally fell five years ago from the train station — where his company maintains a gorgeous country estate for him. Some might be tempted to kill or do anything for such material wealth, which would put this film in the mold of a Chabrol-esque denouement. But here the mystery of his death is framed without any such desires, or without any attempts to remain suspenseful in a Hitchcockian way. This thriller is accomplished in its economical austere ways as it details everyday life and by the slow methodical brooding style of the 70-year-old French New Wave director, Jacques Rivette. He instead probes the mystery from the past by long silences emphasizing what is not said, thereby leaving the viewer uncertain about what happened in the past until the mystery ends in a confessional after a series of violent acts in the present that were deadly but not done intentionally (or at least the ones who got murdered weren’t the intended targets).

Rivette keeps pulling you away from the mystery at the same time he holds the mystery up to the light. This gives the characters time to confront their past. Jacques Rivette’s film is deliberate and constantly probing. It is nearly three hours long before we can put this baby to bed.

The never smiling heroine, Sylvie Rousseau (Sandrine Bonnaire), is juggling a product in a test tube to save mankind. At the same time, she decides to execute someone she only dislikes rather than hates, and has no positive proof is guilty of murdering her father. She does it to save her brother.

It was devilishly amusing to observe the following two things: how the Métro system works so efficiently and in how the rich live well both in Paris and in the country. Their residences have many ornately decorated rooms to restlessly walk around in when life gets them down, and to observe that the bourgeois characters eat well and drink heartily — the story’s living villain says wine has the truth in it. Also, it caught the commonplace and made it part of the suspense, as the phone rings a lot and there’s always a buzz of anticipation as to whether the person is in or not. By imitating real life and the many boring routines one gets trapped in, the film is forced to move at its snail’s pace (which will eliminate all but art-house showings). Its mystery story, instead of being solved by detective work, revolves around purging the characters of secrets–hence the film’s title, which can literally be translated as “Top Secret.”

Self Défense is a loosely updated version on the Greek Electra myth, where the daughter incited her brother to kill her mother and lover.

The film opens as Sylvie is shown to be dedicated to her scientist job. She is working alone in the lab at 10 p.m. doing cancer research for a cure through a vaccine. Frightened by a noise, when she investigates she finds it’s only her distraught younger brother Paul (Gregoire Colin) who has come unannounced to steal her handgun and tell her that their father was pushed to his death by his mother’s lover — the one who took over as boss. He was his right-hand man, Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Polish actor). The only proof Paul has is a newspaper photo which shows his father standing with Walser at the station an hour before his death. Paul points his finger at Walser because he lied at the inquest, he’s not a likable sort, and because Walser had his former secretary say he wasn’t near the station when he was.

Sylvie seems to have no personal life. Her only male pursuer, she fends off. Jules is her pushy ex-boyfriend who brings her flowers and still can’t get into her apartment never mind her pants. He keeps requesting a dinner date, which seems to be during every lull in the story. When she visits Paul in the hospital after his minor injury, as a result of being hit accidentally by a car while on his motor-bike, she’s alarmed that his scatterbrained girlfriend, Carole, brings him a handgun. Paul is a newspaper vender and is not as ambitious in his career moves as others in the family. He seems different in temperament and intellect from his serious sister and from his seemingly removed-from-family-obligations sculptress mother Genevieve (Fabian). His aim is to get even with Walser by killing him rather than trying to bring him to the law.

On the train ride home from the hospital, Sylvie decides her clumsy brother is too inept to kill him and that she must do it herself in order to save him. And, she calls herself a scientist! Back at the lab she gets her handgun, runs into the annoying Jules cloying again for a dinner date–which she makes for that evening knowing full well that she might not be able to make it. She instead heads for the country estate to murder the womanizing, porcine Walser.

At the estate, complications arise when Walser’s eager, devoted, mealticket seeking, young secretary, Veronique (Marsac), who is having an affair with him, charges Sylvie when she points the gun at him and it accidentally kills her. The ever resourceful Walser discards Vero’s body in the river, and uses the guilt-ridden and reluctant Sylvie as an ally in this coverup. The cold-hearted and self-absorbed businessman who works and plays hard, tries to win favor with Sylvie but the troubled scientists only pouts and wonders what went so wrong in her plan to save her brother.

When Vero doesn’t show up to church with her family, her similar looking younger sister Ludivine (Marsac) meets with Walser at his office to see if she’s with him. He brings her back to the estate and impresses her with his power and wealth, just like he did her sister. Walser needs a sex partner replacement for Vero, so he seduces her sister. At about this time Genevieve, who never answered Sylvie’s phone calls, receives Walser in her studio and we learn that the two have no secrets from each other and have an alliance relating to her husband’s death. We are left to wonder — why? It’s then revealed that Sylvie’s older sister Elizabeth, committed suicide 15 years ago when she was nearly 15. Knowing this part of the puzzle will help in trying to figure out why the mother is so cold about her ambitious business-minded husband’s death.

Sandrine Bonnaire is a good reason to see this unconventional thriller that isn’t quite a thriller — yet it is. She gives an honest and convincing performance as someone who got lost in the emotional shuffle of family affairs. The story is well-told, but it always remains ambiguous (which might not please all tastes). Yet there’s something emotionally moving about this unique film that lingers in your consciousness and keeps you thinking about it. Perhaps, because Self Défense is more like real life than art or a classical myth, it eventually wins you over. It is an hermetic film that leaves you with the feeling of how truly damning it is to be human and how daunting a task it is to come to terms with the past.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”