Private secretaries

Two women sleep their way to the top of the corporate ladder in Secret Things

Back in 1933, just before the dawn of the Production Code era, Barbara
Stanwyck made a great, racy movie called Baby Face in which she played a
barmaid who uses her sexual wiles to climb her way to the top floor of the
office building located above the basement speakeasy where she started out.
Writer/director Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things could be read as
sort of an arty remake of Baby Face—he has two heroines instead of one,
he fills the film with a lot more explicit sex and he coats the whole thing
with a sheen of cynical French intellectualism, but Secret Things is still a
dirty old Barbara Stanwyck film at heart. We begin in a strip bar where
Nathalie (Coralie Revel, a brunette bad girl who’s like a Parisian
version of Alannah Myles) is a performer and Sandrine (blonde-haired Sabrina
Seyvecou) tends bar. When they both get fired on the very same night,
Nathalie proposes that Sandrine move into her apartment. It’s more than
an act of charity; although both women insist that they’re not
lesbians, Nathalie nevertheless adopts Sandrine as a kind of sexual pupil.
She brings out Sandrine’s exhibitionist side, urging her to masturbate
in front of her and to take off her underwear as they sit in a crowded subway
station. Pleased with Sandrine’s progress, soon Nathalie decides
it’s time for the two of them to go after bigger game: they both land
secretarial jobs in a huge French corporation, intent on bedding the men who
will help them get furthest ahead in the shortest amount of time. And sure
enough, Sandrine quickly catches the eye of Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), a
middle-aged office drone who falls hard for her newly honed powers of
seduction. To quote Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, soon Sandrine is working
so hard, she has to go to bed early every night. But Nathalie’s real
target is Christophe (Fabrice Deville), the handsome but sadistic son of the
corporation’s dying CEO and the man to whom control of the company will
likely fall once his father is out of the picture—and it’s with
the introduction of Christophe into the equation that Brisseau really starts
testing the extent to which his audience is willing to play along with him.
Up until this point in the film, Secret Things has simply been an intriguing,
naughty little erotic thriller. The scenes where Nathalie keeps daring
Sandrine to push the boundaries of her own sexuality are playful but
genuinely arousing—and the fact that we don’t really know
Nathalie’s true motives gives them a satisfying undercurrent of danger
and mystery. But the character of Christophe takes the film into a bizarre
new fantasy dimension: Brisseau has conceived of this fellow as a Sadean
sexual tyrant with a creepy, inappropriately intimate relationship with his
sexy sister, a guy who has treated his previous lovers so cruelly that one of
them showed up at company headquarters, doused herself with gasoline and set
herself on fire right there in the lobby. And then, a few months later, it
happened again! The plot gets more and more fantastic the more we see of
Christophe, who I suppose is meant to symbolize the black, amoral heart of
the corporate world, and by the end of the film, as we watch a panicky
Sandrine (who has agreed to marry Christophe) runs around Christophe’s
mansion where he’s presiding over an Eyes Wide Shut orgy, the script
goes right off the rails. Except that’s not a really fair
description—far from going “off the rails,” Brisseau
obviously meant his film to end this way all along. In a strange way, Secret
Things’ worldview is deeply moral. Nathalie keeps warning Sandrine that
the worst thing that can happen to a seductress is to fall in love with her
prey, but Brisseau sets up Christophe’s mansion as a nightmare vision
of a world that’s completely absent of love. In other words, without
love there’s nothing but cruelty and degradation. (Nathalie, meanwhile,
breaks her own rule and falls in love several times—and she’s the
only character whose story ends happily.) Secret Things is more interesting
to think about than to watch. Brisseau’s low budget especially hurts
him—the office scenes (and the orgy scenes) could have used the steely
photographic glamour that Olivier Assayas brings to Demonlover, the other
French tale of sex, sadism and big business that Metro Cinema is screening
this weekend. And unlike the unforgettably brutal ending to Assayas’s
film, Brisseau’s climactic scenes of sexual horror seem silly and campy
instead of shocking. But taken together, these two films do tempt me to apply
for an office position somewhere in France; here in Canada, the only sexual
thing about my workplace are the 200 Viagra ads I get in my e-mail every
morning. V Secret Things Written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau •
Starring Sabrina Seyvecou, Coralie Revel, Roger Mirmont and Fabrice Deville
• Zeidler Hall, The Citadel • Fri-Mon, Apr 30-May 3 (9:30pm) •
Metro Cinema • 425-9212

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