Based on an autobiographical novel by French psychoanalyst Philippe Grimbert, "A Secret" ("Un Secret") jumps in and out of several time periods, alternating black and white with color, to tell a story about François Grimbert (in the movie the
first name is changed from Philippe) growing up in Paris during the 1950's under the shadow of a grave family secret. A weakly child, 7-year-old François believes that he has a more athletic brother, Simon (Orlando Nicoletti), but he's not sure whether the wonder boy is real or imaginary. What he does know is thatwhen he mentions Simon, his father, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), becomes enraged, vehemently denying the brother's existence.
"Simon" may be François's way of compensating for his own inadequacy when faced with a gymnast/wrestler father and a mother, Tania (Cécile de France), who is a former model and expert diver. Both personify the Aryan ideal which, through archival clips, we see glorified at the Berlin Olympics before World War II. However, the Grimberts are Jewish, or they once were.
We learn this from their friend and neighbor, Louise (Julie Depardieu), who tells François of his parents' escape from occupied Paris with fake identities and forged passports, neither of which reveal their Judaism.
But the denial goes deeper. Maxime was once married to a woman named, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), and had a son, the once mythical Simon. Tania is engaged to Hannah's brother (who is swallowed up in the Holocaust). All are part of an extended Jewish family. In fact, Maxime's real name is Grinberg.
In their retreat from the Nazis, Maxime and Tania initially have little guilt about shedding their Jewishness. Yet, Hannah does. She ultimately tells the truth to the border guards. They quickly seize her and her son, sending them to their deaths.
Guilt hits home when Hannah and Simon don't return, though not enough to prevent Maxim from consummating his lust for Tania. The result is marriage and François. The film ends with adult François (Mathieu Amalric) comforting an aged and broken Maxime on a park bench about a dead dog.
"A Secret" is a complex and heartfelt film about a difficult and delicate subject, with pain connecting to a deep historical nerve. It stands next to "Sophie's Choice," "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" as one of the great films about the Holocaust.