For Shrek 2 and French director Jean-Claude Brisseau's Secret Things to simultaneously show in the same theater complex feels appropriate-albeit only in my favorite kind of highly perverse way. The former is a childish romp that peripherally attempts to entertain adults. The latter is an unrated adult romp (bring your ID) that will leave all but the randiest grown-ups feeling prudish and old. The former constantly borders on naughtiness while deftly avoiding having to say anything new. The latter takes a tried and true cinematic benchmark-namely, that nubile European women engaging in graphic sex is a good thing-and turns it into a full-frontal assault on audience morality that is both fascinating and exasperating.
The film starts, as so many of the greats do, with a panning shot of the stage at a high-end strip club. Nathalie (Coralie Revel) convulses toward the rapt audience in a kind of naked Saturday Night Fever-strut while an Angel of Death, appropriately accessorized with a croaking raven, silently watches over her. Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), a shy ex-suburbanite, watches longingly while tending bar, her face beaming the kind of passionate admiration that we Americans save for presidential addresses and sitcom series finales. Little do the pair know that on that same night, they will be cast into the street by their bosses for not being willing to turn their own "secret things" into company property, so to speak.
With bills piling up and angels watching down, the two jilted jezebels formulate a plan to extract some sexual wergild out of France's corporate landscape, one sheltered yuppie at a time. "A nice guy who has never lived-these will be our victims," explains Nathalie, at this point acting as Sandrine's sexual and occupational advisor through a series of graphic lesbian sex scenes meant to forever cure Sandrine's primary "weakness": her ability to love, pity or empathize with men.
Both Nathalie and Sandrine find employment at a prestigious private bank, and their plan progresses masterfully-almost as if Secret Things were a female reclamation of Neil LaBute's merciless male power trip In the Company of Men. Every bank-drone at which Sandrine winks becomes a willing slave, and she rockets upward from "office peon" to "mistress of the CEO" to "wizard behind the CEO's curtain"-at least, until she and Nathalie cross paths with the bank's heir apparent Christophe (Fabrice Deville). Now, at last, the film changes from little more than a self-righteous skin flick to a study in audience boundaries that, while still massively pretentious, is at least interesting enough to justify watching it to an incredulous girlfriend.
Christophe, it turns out, is an impenetrable block of male manipulation far beyond the abilities of either Nathalie or Sandrine. While superficially interested in the pair's advances, he is without question the most pitiless and hence powerful player on the sexual chessboard-which, confusingly enough, makes him the queen. However, one woman and one woman alone is able to drill through Christophe's wooden heart. Here's a hint: she shares a mother, a father, and a last name with him (don't worry; that's not as much of a story-ruiner as it sounds).
Can you hear the horrified gasps of a few dozen Friday-night Flicks-goers? I could. The audience at my particular screening, all of whom were middle-aged couples obviously wanting to engorge, er ... engage in a little rock-gettin'-off while still safely in the realm of "legitimate cinema," suddenly found a wrench thrown in their foreplay machinery. But not a jokey wrench. No, the special spot held in the heart and pants of Brisseau's beau by Lil' Sis is serious, passionate and justified by Brisseau in terms of moral defiance. In fact, those of us who don't boink our brethren "are like bound gods, afraid to experience true liberty," Christophe declares in one of his many well-enunciated lines that sound like a Nietzschean outtake.
Ultimately, the appeal of Secret Things rises and falls on a viewer's ability to handle sexual taboos being snapped and discarded like so many French bra straps-although, in a move that speaks volumes about our delicate societal boundaries, Brisseau never ventures near the final cinematic frontier of frontal male nudity. Brisseau's uncompromising commitment to escalation and to forcing his characters through all varieties of hellish torture before giving them any rest is admirable, even if his methods fringe on the ridiculous. Many movies this year will want you, the viewer, to walk away having taken a stand on their subject, but none will force it quite like Secret Things.