Stanley Kubrick envisioned Eyes Wide Shut as an Odyssean chronicle of marital drift. After a series of absurd encounters with the unseemly, naughty bourgeois and the diseased rejects that pander to their ludicrous peccadilloes, Tom Cruise’s wandering soul gets the hint: don’t stray! Jean-Claude Brisseau’s subversive Secret Things is nowhere near as structurally rigorous as Kubrick’s swan song, but it certainly feels more daring. First, think Celine and Julie Go Masturbating. On what appears to be a lonely stage, the sexy Nathalie (Coralie Revel) begins to pleasure herself. Then the delirious swell of an opera piece, perfectly timed to the movement of Brisseau’s camera, which pans to the right to reveal a roomful of bar patrons, including innocent barmaid Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), ogling the spectacle of Nathalie’s uninhibited libido. Right away, this is a woman in full control of her sex, and her relationship to Nathalie suggests a confrontation between id and ego (critic Zach Ralston rightfully draws allusions to David Fincher’s Fight Club). She’s fucking hot, but the sexual-political implications of her dance are hotter. This is a powerful ritual of self-actualization, and Brisseau envisions in it a postmodern collision of reality-challenging signs that carries over into the rest of the film: the extras happily stare into the camera, the mise-en-scène is meticulously anti-artifice, and the characters giddily speak the director’s subtext. Brisseau doesn’t mess around. In stripping Secret Things of any and all aesthetic bullshit, he mediates the relationship between Sandrine and Nathalie by bringing us closer to them. Call it an anti-distancing approach. This erotic chronicle of two ball-busting, social-climbing women takes place in the present but could just as easily have taken place in the Middle Ages, or in the same future as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Nathalie and Sandrine’s struggle to conquer a demonic hottie’s empire is the same struggle of disenfranchised masses trying to overthrow despotic leaders. Their weapon is sex (coy glances, hushed whispers, public wanking) and every assault is contrived as a political maneuver. Alliances repeatedly shift, and the higher they move up the social ladder the more dangerous things get. By film’s end, the very-straight Brisseau threatens to destroy his women warriors. But despite the overwhelming power of the incestuous demigod played by Fabrice Deville, the spoils of war are theirs and the film ends with a discomfiting role reversal that daringly questions the progress the women have made. Happily and ridiculously over the top, Secret Things is a war of anarchic, sexual primitivism.
A little research confirmed that Secret Things was shot by Jean-Claude Brisseau in 1.66:1 and yet it’s presented on this First Run Features DVD in 1.33:1 full screen. What gives? If that weren’t screwy enough, the English subtitles are not removable! As for the image itself: Edge enhancement isn’t really a problem, but black levels leave plenty to be desired, with shadow delineation sketchy at best and skin tones a little on the brown side. Daylight scenes fare best, but are still plagued with specks and dirt throughout. The 2.0 stereo surround is equally problematic: The music during the opening scene still packs a punch but the dialogue on the 2.0 stereo surround track is hot, with Sabrian Seyvecou’s voiceover peaking throughout. To be fair, I don’t remember the film’s sound design being altogether good, but I also don’t remember room tone being as intrusive as it is here.
The film is hot. The DVD, sadly, is not.