There is no face better suited to portray a woman seeking revenge than that of Sandrine Bonnaire, whose taut jawline, sharp glare, and high-planed, somehow strategizing forehead all suggest payback. It’s a look she wears well. The slightest arch of her eyebrow seems capable of pulling a trigger; not so much piercing someone’s heart, but dismissing it entirely. With Bonnaire, the simplest gesture, like tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, reads as code. The same is true of those seconds that swell between each puff of her cigarette—Bonnaire’s very being is a cold shoulder, a hatched plan. She has that rare quality of looking despondent yet nervy as if eternally alert: to threat or unsolicited advice from men, but also to how the light in a room may hone or soften the slant shadow of her cheekbones. Her features, like wind-weathered stone, appear sculpted from years of expertly deployed half-smiles and near-wordless sparring.
In Jacques Rivette’s slow burning psychological thriller, Secret Defense (1998), Bonnaire plays Sylvie, a research scientist who, at the film’s start, is confronted at her lab by her unwieldy brother, Paul, who believes he has discovered photographic proof that their father’s accidental death was in fact murder. The suspect? Their father’s once business partner, a man named Walser (played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who now lives in their childhood home in the French countryside and is still friends with Sylvie and Paul’s mother. Sylvie opts to kill Walser, preventing Paul from committing any foolhardy mistakes. Her choice is just that: hers. Despite a couple scenes, Rivette eschews the trappings of melodramatic filial obligation and focuses instead on chronicling Sylvie’s every move. Bonnaire’s depiction of obsession is a revelation, in large part, because it’s a depiction of unapology.
She does what she wants. In the film’s first ten minutes, Paul accuses Sylvie of being emotionally “elsewhere” and “gone,” and yet there isn’t another character in the entire film that commands more presence than Sylvie. With her arm firmly outstretched, she steadies her gun with one hand. On trains, she rarely sits. At home, her pacing is not dizzying or mopey, but carefully aimed. She walks with her focus fifty feet in front of her as if intending to reach a makeshift vanishing point. (The film’s one vestige of playfulness is a cat mobile that hangs in her otherwise scarcely decorated white apartment. It twirls above the phone, next to a photograph of her dead sister.)
Modestly structured, the plot is ripe for Rivette to manipulate and slacken into a calculatingly plodding pace. Extended shots of Sylvie boarding and riding trains, or standing at a slight pivot on platforms, document her journey to kill Walser and creates a sense of incremental mystery. The film’s repetitive pacing is directly proportionate to how information is dispatched and gradually accrues, eventually pointing to a shocking family secret. Half-truths, furtive glances, and vague statements like, “I never thought I’d need the strength to go against my children,” are abundant though rarely disclose substantial clues. Mystery is the film’s momentum.
What also evolves is the unexpected nearness Sylvie feels toward her enemy. After one fatal false start, an eerie calm settles and soon Sylvie is sharing eggs in the morning with Walser. She is encouraged to “keep busy,” and to “get a hold of [herself].” She naps. Or at least tries to. Her responsiveness, like that of an insomniac, is counterfeit. The countryside’s fresh air leaves her cumbersomely numb and Sylvie, in some moments, moves as though she might already be dead. One wonders if killing Walser is, to a degree, her form of self-eulogizing. Or is Sylvie’s sudden shift in demeanor simply performance?
Rivette’s insistence on Sylvie, instead of say, a thrilling plot, elevates the film. Unscored and for the most part quiet—the occasional bang or revved up engine are perhaps the film’s loudest sounds—Secret Defense is, for anyone who has ever experienced the anxiety of simply doing, a prodigious rendering of step-by-step process. Instead of building towards Sylvie’s reprisal with a series of big movements, we are privy to what might be described as minor incidentals: missed phone calls, lines at the ticket counter, sunglasses purchased on the fly, two pairs. While her actions seem benign, they accumulate fretfully. Despite those near-lasers that shoot from Bonnaire’s steely stare, one can imagine the speediest flutter in Sylvie’s chest—her ammunition and onerous burden both. She is like a Hitchcock heroine, proficient, it appears, at concealing shallow breaths.