Blu-ray Review: Secret Defense

STUDIO: Cohen Media | DIRECTOR: Jacques Rivette | CAST: Sandrine Bonnaire, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Grégoire Colin, Laure Marsac, Françoise Fabian, Christine Vouilloz
RELEASE DATE: 3/14/23 | PRICE: DVD none, Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: Commentary by director emeritus, New York Film Festival, and professor of film and media studies, Columbia University, Richard Peña
SPECS: NR | 174 min. | Foreign language thriller | 1.85:1 | 2.0 stereo 

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Jacques Rivette (Around a Small MountainThe NunLa Pont du Nord) was a scholar of Hitchcock’s work — he was part of the Cahiers du Cinema group that was called the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians” by Andre Bazin. Thus, it’s no surprise that he included thriller elements in most of his his films; what is surprising is that Secret Defense (1998) is his only “pure” thriller.

It also is a perfect example of how Rivette transformed the genres he worked in, for Secret Defense (a title that translates as “Top Secret”) is one of the most unique thrillers, a prime love-it-or-hate-it experiment in suspense.

The plot is consists of a number of twists, all involving revelations that our heroine, science researcher Sylvia (Sandrine Bonnaire, Queen to Play) uncovers. It begins when her brother (Grégoire Colin) informs her that their late father didn’t fall from a train and die, he was pushed. The brother believes the killer was Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), the father’s assistant in a military armament business (who now lives in a mansion owned by the father’s family).

Sylvie doesn’t believe her brother at first, but then she speaks with Walser and is convinced he killed her father. She make a trip to visit him at the family mansion — with a gun hidden in her bag. And thus begins the film’s most unique sequence, in which we watch Sylvie’s journey for longer than 15 minutes: two commuter trains and one long walk later, she arrives and the plot takes a fatal turn, but not the one that was expected.

This sequence represents Rivette at his most hypnotic (or, for more impatient viewers, his dullest). We watch Sylvie contemplating the killing she wants to commit and the sheer duration of his segment of the film conveys the intensity of her purpose. Of course, what she didn’t count on is the fact that every time she’s back in that particular mansion, she loses control of her life, and someone else is charge of her behavior.

This theme isn’t new to Rivette’s work — it forms the bedrock of a few of his films that feature mysterious houses (including his most celebrated, Celine and Julie Go Boating). What is different here is that Defense stays in thriller mode throughout, and Sylvie and her brother must deal with the disturbing truths they discover, which upend the plot, as does a sudden, brilliant conclusion (which happens, naturally enough, back at the mansion).

The spell that Rivette wove was directly linked to his pacing — his films ordinarily start off somewhat slow and speed up as they move along. Here Rivette experimented with speeding up and slowing down the proceedings at different points. The result is a thriller that directly involves the viewer in Sylvie’s quandary and allows us to slowly learn about her family’s peculiar connection to Walser throughout the film.

The cast wonderfully inhabit their roles. Colin and Fabian communicate edginess and cold calm as Sylvie’s brother and mother, while Jerzy Radziwilowicz is the villain of the piece whose one fatal act becomes fully comprehensible as the film moves on. The film is Bonnaire’s from start to finish, though. Having already played in Rivette’s Joan of Arc saga (Joan the Maid), she was familiar with the pacing of his films — here she serves as both catalyst for the plot and victim of the various revelations.

The audio commentary by Richard Peña is very informative and does continue throughout the nearly three hours length of the film, although there are “breathers” where Peña’s voice disappears (and one odd edit early on that jumps forward in his commentary, then backward). He provides background info on Rivette and the cast and crew, and explores both Rivette’s visual style and the themes common to his films.

Peña notes that, throughout the film, “the camera is constantly on the move” during key scenes, conveying Sylvie’s “nervousness.” He also points out that details are introduced in the background of certain shots that are later picked up on and prove important to the narrative.

Most valuable are Peña’s reflections on the long travel sequence. He first states that he likes Rivette’s respect for “the logic of subways,” providing shots that establish which stations the characters arrive and depart from, and sticking to the correct order of stops. (He mentions that Sylvie’s journey here keeps her on the 6 Metro line in Paris.) The travel sequence, he says, focuses on “the action we don’t see” often in thrillers, namely the characters’ feelings. Rivette’s study of Bonnaire’s face provides Sylvie’s feelings, and thus justifies the length of the sequence.

As for the link to Hitchcock, Peña states that Secret Defense shares the master director’s emphasis on guilt and how it effects the common individual.

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”