'The False Secrets' ('Les Fausses Confidences'): Locarno Review

False Secrets-Still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno
See it for Huppert treadmilling in a gold lamé tracksuit.

Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel and Bulle Ogier headline this adaptation of the Marivaux play that was shot by day while the actors performed the same play in the theater by night.

Though Marivaux is a familiar name for every theater lover in France — with many no doubt having had to outgrow their status as groaning high-school students first confronted with the complexities of the playwright’s prose — he doesn’t quite have the same reputation abroad as Moliere, who is often assigned the Shakespeare-of-France label instead. But in the Francophone world, he’s a much admired writer, as evidenced by the continued popularity of his three most famous plays: The Triumph of Love (which became a 1997 Broadway musical and, even more incongruously, a 2001 film with Mira Sorvino); Games of Love and Chance (which inspired the eponymous Abdellatif Kechiche film) and Les fausses confidences, which has earlier been adapted for the screen in 1984 and 2010 and which has now been filmed again by the late Swiss theater director Luc Bondy.

The originality of Bondy’s take on the material, somewhat awkwardly translated as False Secrets in English, is the fact that it was shot during an actual run of the play at Paris’s iconic Odeon theater with the same high-voltage cast, including French icons Isabelle Huppert and Bulle Ogier as well as French cinema’s disinterested dandy extraordinaire, Louis Garrel.

Working with the same text — but reportedly different costumes and hair — the dividing line between cinema and theater thus became very porous for the performers, who played the film version of the characters by day and the theater version of the same characters by night. That said, much of this experiment’s metatextual fascination will be lost for those who haven’t seen the stage version in 2014 (or its 2015 revival) to which it could be compared, with the feature as a stand-alone item finally more of a curiosity item than anything approaching a definitive take on the material.

Zurich-born Bondy, who died in 2015 before this movie was fully finished, ran the Odeon between 2012 and 2015. Part of the reason the director made this film — his first since 2004’s Ne fais pas ca! and only his fourth overall — might have been to leave behind a more concrete memory of his time at the Odeon, with the theater’s columned hall, grand staircase, exterior balcony overlooking the Place de l’Odeon and hypermodern backstage area all transformed into (clearly incongruous) places where the 1737 play unfolds.  

Dorante (Garrel) is a tenebrous and financially ruined young man who has the good fortune to become the private secretary of the fair-haired Araminte (Huppert), a rich widow. The latter is destined by her imperious mother, Madame Argan (Ogier), to marry the Count Dorimont to avoid entering a protracted legal battle with the Count over a piece of land. But Dorante, in love with Araminte, tries to convince the object of his affection that she would be able to win a court case against the Count and thus wouldn’t need to marry him just to resolve a legal dispute.

As the male lead but finally also a servant, Dorante functions as a go-between between the upstairs and downstairs parts of the household in the play. He heard about the post he’ll occupy from one of the men running Araminte’s house, Dubois (Yves Jacques), and Araminte’s servant girl, Mademoiselle Marton (Manon Combes), is destined by Dorante’s uncle to become his betrothed while he’s in the household, though Dorante himself would much rather like to marry Araminte.

Misinterpretations and misunderstandings thwart the (potential) lovers and drive the seriocomic action, though all that finally transpires here isn’t much more than a solid comedy of errors that’s only elevated by Marivaux’s language (deliciously twirled around the mouths of the entire cast). The cinematic language isn't very sophisticated either, with scenes either very brightly lit or taking place in penumbral spaces and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli often preferring rather neutral medium shots. The film's busy, occasionally even baroque score also more often feels intrusive than actually helpful. 

That said, what makes False Secrets nonetheless interesting as a film are the small and unexpected touches that enliven the material — if you’ve got an overwhelming desire to see La Huppert in a gold lamé tracksuit on a treadmill, this is your movie — as well as a few things that cannot be done onstage, such as some flashbacks in black-and-white, or the decision to shoot several scenes in the Luxembourg Gardens, right behind the Odeon. There are also some small moments of physical comedy that betray how much of a detail-oriented director Bondy was; a literal throwaway moment in which Huppert casually tosses a bit of wrapping paper in Ogier’s direction thus says something about the duo’s difficult daughter-mother rapport while also scoring a huge laugh. 

But the film as a whole never quite finds a way to marry the hybrid setting and contemporary props, such as Ogier’s rock-star sunglasses, with the text’s antiquated language and preoccupations with marriage and money. Working in and around the Odeon, the current version of which was built in a neoclassical style in the late 1810s, the setting sometimes feels almost like it could be from the time the action is set, though the view of cars outside, for example, then ruins this illusion, as do the modern clothes and shoes (for some reason, there are shoes on the floor in just about every room). Unfortunately, these dissonant contemporary elements don’t seem to be part of a larger stylistic vision that would both feel coherent and be able to convincingly contrast with a much older text, such as in Baz Luhrmann’s intentionally jarring but ultimately convincing adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.  

The play finally concludes, perhaps as could be expected, actually onstage, though Bondy at least has a couple of small surprises in store for the moments right after the play ends. It ain't over until it's over. 

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Ideale Audience, Arte France, Odeon-Theatre de l’Europe, Maha Productions
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel, Bulle Ogier, Yves Jacques, Manon Combes, Bernard Verley, Jean-Pierre Malo, Fred Ulysse
Director: Luc Bondy
Screenplay: Luc Bondy, Geoffrey Layton, based on the play by Marivaux
Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet
Director of photography: Luciano Tovoli
Production designer: Aurore Vullierme
Costume designer: Moidele Bickel
Music: Bruno Coulais
Sales: Doc & Film International

Not rated, 85 minutes