Secret Défense (Rivette, 1997)

Secret Défense: Small Trafficking in Death
Claire Vassé

After a foray into musical comedy, with the intersecting adventures of three Parisian girls in Haut, bas, fragile, Jacques Rivette now guides Sandrine Bonnaire between the countryside and Paris, but a Paris that is distinctly less playful, closer to the Paris of Paris nous appartient. Without a single note of music – aside from the credits – or dancing, Secret Défense is a film in which the weight and movements of the bodies are all the more realistic for constituting an essential part of the film. For the most beautiful scenes are perhaps the trips on the subway (one of which is filmed in real time) and train that allow Rivette to prove once again that he is the master of prolonging time. This is not to say he is a filmmaker of time: Rivette is above all a director of space, and this latest film affirms so, ostensibly in a somewhat diversionary manner, but ultimately quite neatly.

If the essence of Rivette’s cinema is not time, it is, first, because the films lack a notion of irreversibility that alone affords time its true substance, permeated by tragedy and death. The director of Céline et Julie vont en bateau prefers to shift back and forth between dreams and reality, envisaging life as a vast, endlessly restarting Game of the Goose, like so many mysteries whose resolution remains suspended. Just as Ida in Haut, bas, fragile, is running away from her rediscovered origins, Rivette is running away from the how and why, preferring to suspend time than to complete it with a conclusion that would herald death – or at least give  a foretaste of it.

Curiously, though, Secret Défense defies these characteristics, ending instead in the most definitive manner possible: the death of Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire), the mystery having been cleared up. “Paris bores me,” the character of Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) says at one point; and these words could be understood as a direct echo of the filmmaker’s first feature, a kind of confession of weariness from someone who has always wanted to understand the world as an immense game in order to preserve its inconsistency and labyrinthine mysteries. But this may be jumping the gun: if Rivette’s latest film appears to be more linear and more conclusive, it is not without a spirit of twists and turns that strives to deviate from the path, the better to make it go in circles.

The first diversion requires the application of the film’s own mise en scène to resolve the mystery: a story about body trafficking, that of Sylvie’s sister, Elisabeth, whom her father sold to satisfy sordid professional ambitions. And the traffic of bodies is Rivette’s main business more than ever. Rivette is just as happy contriving their intersections and reappearances in his giant, playful race, as he is having them pass away, so that they can be simply and purely interchanged with one another. This is explicitly the case with Ludivine (Laure Marsac), the twin sister of Véro, who appears after the latter’s death and takes her place in the bed of her lover Walser. Trafficking bodies in a way, Rivette tries out roles, movements, behaviors and clothes on the same actress, just like Walser, the director’s alter ego, when he hides Ludivine in the shadows so that he can better orchestrate the surprise of Sylvie discovering her; and so that he can better test her nerves, a matter of experimenting how the surprise will affect her exhausted body as it bends the tiniest bit. More metaphorically, bodies are interchanged by fulfilling tasks that were not initially their responsibility: Walser killed Sylvie’s father so that her mother did not have to,* and Sylvie tells her brother, who wants to kill Walser, “I have to do to do it in your place.” As for the film’s two murders, they also happen to concern bodies being substituted for one another: those of Véro and Sylvie, blocking Walser’s body, the only one actually being targeted.

Secret Défense sticks clearly to its refusal to represent the past, leaving all tangible signs of other temporal layers to the background: photos and the children of the servant Marthe, the symbol of a new generation, that we only glimpse. The film takes place, moreover, over seven days, ending on the day it begins, closing the loop clearly as it ends on the murder of Sylvie by Ludivine, the twin sister of Véro who was killed a few days earlier by Sylvie. In a sense, Rivette is inviting us to a circling dance of death, but one that is in a certain way contested, the murdered body rising to the surface to take revenge on the murderer.

“Rising to the surface” is in fact the major subject of the film, which continually reduces questions of time and death to questions of spatial configuration, as in the case of Véro’s murder. The only difficulty it seems to cause Walser is that the body, which he gets rid of by throwing it into a river, does not “rise to the surface.” The time of the dead, then, is fixed to a space. In this regard, the real-time filming of a scene of travel that is actually about retracing one’s steps is emblematic, as if time could have little sway over a space that eschews time altogether by moving in an endless circle. The association of space with time in order to counter the influence of the latter is, moreover, the most significant maneuver Secret Défense makes to counter the march of time – or rather, to counter the figure of death. When Sylvie finds herself at risk of falling into the depths of the past by looking at a painting of a Middle Ages landscape, she is rudely brought to her senses by the surrounding space, which is made apparent by  the noise of her brother Paul’s motorcycle arriving at the estate. And the past relative to Elisabeth is also put into relation with the space since, above all, it is initially her bedroom that Sylvie mentions to start the conversation about her with Marthe. As for Ludivine, she does not want “to follow the same path as her sister,” that is, by dying. Here again, death is expressed in terms of space, which is, in a way, a compensatory equivalent to the time that is slipping away. “I drove fast to catch the lost time,” Walser explains to Sylvie when he tells her about the circumstances of her father’s murder. As though this spatialization of time was a way of circumscribing death in a territory, of containing it within limits.

If death is present in Secret Défense, it is, curiously, because it is missing, placed at the center of the film only then to be constantly denied by Rivette. This incapacity to stage death gives way, moreover, to one of the most beautiful moments in the film: Sylvie and Ludivine are in the estate’s garden, and Sylvie wants to confess to her that her sister is dead. Very quickly, the scene turns into a confrontation, Ludivine reproaching Sylvie for “her superior airs” of someone who knows more than the others. Of course Sylvie knows more than she is saying but, in Rivette’s universe, death is not spoken, its experience is not communicated. Nobody is qualified to talk about it, not even Rivette, whose complex relationship to aging is expressed by Sylvie's nightmare, imagining that she meets her sister fifteen years after her death, and that her sister hasn’t aged but nevertheless is still the oldest. Despite her position as the oldest, she agrees to play with Sylvie, who ends up suddenly noticing that she is alone, then wakes up. This way of wanting to deny time – or at least of distorting it to try to reduce its fatal effects – is what is at play in Secret Défense.

Rivette’s mise en scène is euphemistic. It makes death a simple desertion of space and not of time. Paradoxically, the weight of death only gains more importance because there is a downside: a simple absence carries the seed of the eventuality of death. The sound work bears witness to this underlying anguish about spatial separation: voices on the phone are in no way muted—a way of attenuating distance, or in fact, of refusing it altogether. But death only becomes more haunting. These voices that echo with such abnormal loudness are voices coming from nowhere, voices of ghosts that float, like Sylvie’s body, which refuses to give way to the desire of her lover Jules to “finally have a moment together.”

As if by a boomerang effect, the death that one wants to push off into space ends up invading the entire film. Rivette is not a filmmaker of time, he does not film “death at work,” but bodies and spaces that traffic in death and lead the spectator on a wandering journey that is both fascinating and enchanting.

*The dialogue between Sylvie and her mother Geneviève is explicit in this regard. When Sylvie asks her why Walser killed her father, Geneviève responds: “For me.” To which Sylvie replies: “You mean: in your place.”

Originally published in Positif, no. 446, April 1998
Translation by Ted Fendt