Although there are secrets at the center of the plot of Secret Defense, which also contains multiple murders within the story, the film is less a mystery film and more a family drama unfolding with moments of violence. Though many have noted that Secret Defense is one of director Jacques Rivette’s most formulaic narratives, there is still a large gap between this and traditional genre filmmaking. There may be elements expected from a thriller, but it is so leisurely paced that all danger and suspense has been diluted.
Unlike most thrillers, Secret Defense doesn’t begin with violence, although the discussion of possible murder sets off a chain of events. A scientist named Sylvie Rousseau (Sandrine Bonnaire) is busy working on a cure for cancer when her brother Paul (Grégoire Colin) insists he has evidence their father’s death was no accident. Upon investigating, Sylvie discovers the possibility that a family friend named Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) may have been involved. Discrepancies in his story lead Sylvie to believe her brother’s theory and set out on a mission for revenge.
As traditional as the storyline seems up to this point, the resulting violence is both anticlimactic and immediately halts any suspense or tension in the plot. The second half of the film slows the pace back down and drags out the melodrama instead. Rather than a murder mystery, the film shifts focus to become about the secrets kept within a family. Although there are answers to the murder of Sylvie’s father, they are not nearly satisfying enough to survive the bloated run-time. At nearly three-hours long, much of Secret Defense contains long takes of characters doing simple activities. With Rivette’s simplistic style, lacking any musical score to build suspense or intensity, this mystery is unlikely to satisfy the narrative itch most desire from the genre.
The Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray release of Secret Defense comes with a new 4K restoration of the movie, for those who want to watch Bonnaire take a 20-minute train ride in the best quality possible. Even though the film doesn’t require the pristine presentation, the release also comes with an audio commentary track by Columbia University professor Richard Peña. This can help contextualize what is admired about Rivette’s filmmaking, even if it doesn’t increase appreciation of the film.
Entertainment Value: 4/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 6/10