Secret Name

***1/2

Reviewed by: Mateusz Tarwacki

Secret Name
"For Aurélia Georges, going back to 1914 in Secret Name is not only a pretext for a story about class emancipation, but, above all, female emancipation." | Photo: Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival

When period costumes appear in contemporary French cinema, one can almost always be sure that there will be some kind of criticism of the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie – this is the case, for example, in Bruno Dumont's mocking, misanthropic Slack Bay, or in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, in which Céline Sciamma a love that is forbidden not only because of gender but also because of social status. For Aurélia Georges, going back to 1914 in Secret Name is not only a pretext for a story about class emancipation, but, above all, female emancipation.

The First World War has just broken out and sex worker Nelie (Lyna Khoudri) decides to abandon her current life and go to the front as a nurse. There, when an opportunity arises, she takes over the identity of the badly injured Rose (Maud Wyler), who comes from a good home. By impersonating her, Nelie advances socially and becomes a reading companion to Madame de Lengwil (Sabine Azéma). Thanks to her cleverness and talents, the girl takes to the upper crust like a duck to water.

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The French creator is inspired by The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins from 1873, moving the plot from Victorian England to France at the beginning of the Great War and changing the names of the heroes. Georges can also afford something that Collins couldn't – not openly, at least. She gives her heroine agency, strength and determination. What Collins had to put between the lines, because hardly anyone in the writer's day would find a story with a strong female personality interesting, Georges presents bluntly.

Khoudri's part is not obvious, Nelie is calculating, sometimes ruthless, but her decisions result from the persistent pursuit of survival. Moreover, she is lonely in her quest for emancipation, she can only rely on her own abilities. Her path and self-control, worthy of a poker player, are all the more impressive.

The French director manages to create charismatic female portraits – not only Nelie is a strong character in Secret Name. Women make important decisions and they are the centre of social life, but they are also on different sides of the conflict, and there are too few privileged places for everyone to fit. Georges involuntarily shows the dark side of the quest for emancipation – reaching a higher class level always comes at the expense of someone else.

Reviewed on: 11 Aug 2021
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Nelie escapes a miserable existence by becoming a frontline nurse in 1914 and goes on to discover emancipation can come with a price.

Festivals:

Locarno 2021

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