By the late 1960s, Jacqueline Bisset was clearly one of the "It" girls among a bevy of starlets who crossed over from flash-in-the-pan status to becoming a genuine star in her own right. Her breakthrough role opposite Steve McQueen in the 1968 blockbuster "Bullitt" helped catapult the British beauty to the top ranks of actresses who were deemed to have international boxoffice appeal. Among her major Hollywood successes: "The Detective", "Airport" and "The Deep". In between, however, Bisset was open to appearing in off-beat films that were most suited for the art house circuit. One of the more unusual productions was "Secret World", a 1969 French film that was the antithesis of the commercial successes she was enjoying. The film was directed by Robert Freeman, a famed photographer who is credited with shooting many of the classic album covers for The Beatles. (Some sources credit Paul Feyder as co-director but the film does not give him this status in the main titles or on the poster.)The film is a moody, slow-moving tale about troubled people in troubled relationships. It's nevertheless oddly compelling and retains the viewer's interest because of the unveiling of key information about the characters and their motives on a drip...drip...drip basis.
The film opens with scenes of Francois (Jean-Francois Vlerick, billed here as Jean-Francois Maurin), an 11 year-old boy who is rather morose and somber. He is living in a French country manor house that, like the family that inhabits it, has seen better days. Francois is under the care of his Aunt Florence (Giselle Pascal) and Uncle Phillippe (Pierre Zimmer, a forty-something couple whose marriage is strained. They go through the motions of keeping their relationship civil, but it's clear the passion is long gone. We see Francois finding some degree of enjoyment in solitude when he retreats to his tree house where he peruses a small box of "treasures", which are various household oddities that he has secreted in his domain. Florence and Phillippe receive an unexpected visit from their son Olivier (Marc Porel), a handsome but irresponsible young man who lives off his parent's money. Like the relationship between his parents, Olivier's dealings with them are similarly strained. Francois observes all of this somberly, rarely speaking unless spoken to. Phillippe announces that they are to have a visitor arriving soon from London: Wendy (Jacqueline Bisset, quite becoming as a blonde), the daughter of an old war buddy who once saved his life. When she shows up, her presence has an immediate impact on everyone in the house. Wendy is polite, out-going, generous and stunningly beautiful. Immediately, Olivier decides to postpone his departure in the hopes of wooing and seducing her. Phillippe seems similarly smitten and Florence is clearly threatened by the arrival of the attractive young woman. As the days pass, she also builds a relationship with Francois, who becomes obsessed with her. He steals a bottle of her perfume so he can have a constant reminder of her presence. She, in turn, plays a combination role of big sister and mother, taking Francois under her wing and spending quality time with him. She later learns that he was been adopted by his aunt and uncle after his parents died in a terrible car crash. Worse, Francois suffered the trauma of being trapped under his mother's body for hours. With Wendy able to reach him in a way that no one else can, Francois's mood begins to lighten. Before long, he is bragging to his small circle of friends that she is his girlfriend, although it is never clear whether his fascination with her is based on his budding sexual instincts or simply because she has fulfilled a nurturing role that has been absent from his life since the death of his mother. As the story progresses, we also learn that Phillippe and Wendy are actually long-time lovers and that her visit from London has been arranged simply so they can spend time together. Before long, Phillippe finds himself in competition with Olivier for her attention. Florence clearly suspects that her husband's interest in Wendy is more than platonic. In a rather cringe-inducing scene, she is mocked by the male members of her household when she decides to have her hair dyed blonde in an obvious attempt to compete with the younger woman. The relationships between the principals continue to deteriorate even as Wendy and Francois become closer. An off-hand remark made by her in jest is taken seriously by the young boy who believes that they are to run away together and live in England, which leads to the inevitable heartbreaking conclusion.
There are no dramatic fireworks or show-stopping moments built into the script but the film is extremely well acted and at some points, you feel as though you are eavesdropping on a real family. Bisset ignites the screen in this early starring role as a woman who is the unintended catalyst for a lot of anxiety for the males in her life. Director Freeman handles the proceedings with sensitivity and he gets significant assistance from the fine cinematography of Peter Biziou. The U.S. marketing campaign for the film was somewhat misleading with its implication that it centered on an illicit sexual relationship between a young woman and an under-age boy. In fact, the sexual element is completely one-sided from standpoint of Francois and there aren't any erotic sequences in the film at all- just an abundance of good actors working with a believable and engrossing script.
The film has been released as part of Fox's Cinema Archives burn-to-order DVD series. The transfer is impressive. Click here to read original New York Times review. Click here to watch a clip.