As its original title (La place d’une autre, which can be translated as “someone else’s place”) makes even clearer, Secret Name tells the story of an identity fraud – for the third time in a few weeks in French movies competing at film festivals, after Tralala and the Palme d’Or Titane last month in Cannes. There is something ruthless in such a shared belief that survival can only come through the act of becoming somebody else. Only then can the protagonist at last find a family to look after him or her, like a cuckoo stealing a spot in the nest of another bird. Nélie (Lyna Khoudri, seen in Papicha and The French Dispatch), the young woman who is the main character of Secret Name, has twice the reason to be harassed by society: she is homeless like the hero of Tralala, and a woman like the protagonist of Titane. The latter is the tougher one to endure, as the introduction of the movie states coldly. In the first five minutes, we see Nélie suffer two sexual assaults, in two completely different circumstances – as a servant in an upper-class house, then in the street where a man confuses her for a prostitute. The one thing in common between the two situations is Nélie’s gender, which makes her the prey. “We are born to suffer”, as another woman tells her later in the film.
The year is 1914, so the Great War provides Nélie with an unexpected way out of her misery: she enlists in the Red Cross as a nurse on the battlefield. There her better self comes to light. She is honest, hardworking, and she insists on saving every living soul. This includes Rose (Maud Wyler), a traveler gone astray on her way to her new haven – before dying, her late father had recommended her to an old friend, the wealthy widow Madame de Lengwil (Sabine Azéma), who agreed to take her as her protégée. When Rose seemingly dies in a bomb raid, Nélie decides on the spot, for once, to save herself. She takes Rose’s name and letter of recommendation, and goes to Madame de Lengwil, who is deceived by Nélie’s good behavior and the fact that she had not seen Rose since she was a little child.
Even though she does not forget where she comes from, Nélie passes from “born to suffer” to “one of us”, meaning one of the wellborn, the privileged. She manages to keep this position even when the real Rose comes back from the dead, too distraught from her violent ordeals to be any match for Nélie’s gentleness and composure. Due to her temper and frailty, Rose’s accusations of identity theft backfire and she is sent to an asylum by a flick of the finger from Madame de Lengwil. Class justice may now be on her side, but Nélie has her own jail: her lie, which keeps on tormenting her. With the association of these two themes, personal guilt unbeknownst to others and class inequalities and conflicts, director Aurélia Georges follows in Claude Chabrol’s footsteps, and her film withstands the comparison. Secret Name proves to be solid and inspired in all its features, from its cast (Lyna Khoudri’s atypical presence, both here and elsewhere, tough and fragile, is perfect to convey Nélie’s ambiguity) to its attention to details and its directing. The cinematography is beautiful – for example the flickering lights on the warfront – and Georges’ aesthetic ideas always hit the spot. Visions of Rose as a ghoul and of the asylum as a nightmarish place bring Secret Name to the verge of the ghost movie genre; later, a maid bringing a bucket of hot water upstairs is filmed in a way which obviously references the glass of milk in Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock, setting our tension at the highest level.
Thematically, Aurélia Georges does not follow Claude Chabrol all the way through, as she does not share his cynicism and misanthropy. In Secret Name, Nélie’s kind-heartedness wins: except on that one occasion where she saved herself, she never stopped looking after other people. This principle provides the film with one last narrative twist, for the better this time. The happy ending (simply and intensely symbolized by a close-up of two people joining hands) the character deserves, as she has been working towards it her whole life.