The opening scene of Jean-Claude Brisseau's "Secret Things" features a nude woman masturbating onstage while a shrouded figure holding a falcon looms behind her. You couldn't nail a particular kind of modern French film better if you tried: explicit sex, bad behavior, and shrieking pretention all in one lumpy shock-the-bourgeoisie package.
As these movies go, "Secret Things" is more explicit and more pretentious than usual, which recommends it to two audiences: couples on their third date and Kubrick fans curious to know what the orgy scene from "Eyes Wide Shut" would look like if it had been better directed. Keep in mind, though, that this ode to carnal emancipation and imprisonment has been directed by a man. In any language, that translates to "transgressive" lesbian quickies and full frontal nudity from the women while the guys mostly keep their clothes on and watch.
"Secret Things" is a pair of movies: The first is an acridly realistic take on sexual politics in the workplace, the second a terminally deranged S&M romance comic. Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou) and Nathalie (Coralie Revel) meet at a strip club where the former is a mousy, naive bartender and the latter an elegantly kinky performer who teaches the younger girl how to fake an orgasm. Getting hired as secretaries at a Paris architecture firm, the women look for bosses on whom to wreak havoc -- "a nice guy who's never lived would be easy prey," decides Sandrine.
If you're thinking this sounds like Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" with the genders reversed, you're right. Still, the look on the face of poor Mr. Delacroix (Roger Mirmont) when he finds Sandrine pleasuring herself in his office one night is worth a dark chuckle, and the ensuing romance -- if that's what you call leading a lamb to slaughter -- has a nice Nabokovian edge of cruelty to it. All is going according to Nathalie's plan, and love, according to Nathalie, is enemy number one.
It's a surprise, then, when she falls hard for the company CEO, a silky ladykiller with the soul of de Sade and the face of a male underwear model. With the appearance on the scene of Christophe (Fabrice Deville), "Secret Things" grows steadily more feverish, less realistic, more into the melodrama of dominant/submissive behavior. Which is fine; movie love doesn't always have to be vanilla. Unfortunately, this one is tutti-frutti.
Christophe treats Nathalie like dirt and proposes a brief marriage to Sandrine so he can fool his aging father into handing over the remaining reins of the company. Their wedding is a libertine's dream, with guests randomly coupling in the gloaming and the groom clutching his sister while issuing such potted Mephistophelean maxims as "Alive, we are like bound gods -- only death can cleanse." It's as though Friedrich Nietzsche and a Foucaultian theorist had gotten drunk and collaborated on a Cinemax soft-core flick.
Some may feel that dippy, intellectual European movie sex will always be preferable to smirking, puritanical American movie sex. I say both back nervously away from the subject. "Secret Things" hints at a place where desire, fear, pleasure, and power all intersect, but it never actually goes there. It ladles out the soap instead, and it focuses on Seyvecou's dull Sandrine instead of Revel's eerie, obsessive Nathalie. How can you trust a movie that ignores its own breakout star?
Just in case you had forgotten this was art, there's lots of Vivaldi on the soundtrack, and that shrouded falconer shows up from time to time, hanging in the background like a repo man for lost souls. Maybe he's looking for a movie that actually does fuse the libido and the brain into something that first gets you hot and then gets you bothered. "Secret Things" works well enough on the former front, but if ye seek the lust that rearranges your head, search on, O falconer, search on.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.