This body-swap melodrama is oddly compelling

Our series exploring Montreal-shot movies tackles Vincent Perez’s The Secret, starring David Duchovny and Olivia Thirlby.

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David Duchovny in The Secret

Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series exploring films from the vaults shot and/or set in Montreal.

The Film: The Secret (2007)

Does Montreal play itself? The film is set in suburban Massachusetts, so no, but I suppose the general geographic location is fairly accurate.

secret posterMost egregious local landmarks: Since it’s set in the suburbs, the film employs the most suburban of all suburban suburbs: the West Island, more specifically Pointe-Claire (Knowlton, Sherbrooke and Hudson are all thanked in the credits, but I’m not familiar enough with those places to really pinpoint what happened where. Stay tuned for Made in Knowlton at our yet-to-exist sister site Cult KNWLTN.) John Abbott College (definitely the most cinematically campus-y of all Montreal campuses) stands in for Olivia Thirlby’s character’s high school. The only scene that could take place in Montreal proper is one where David Duchovny goes to the library, which appears to be downtown but is glimpsed so quickly that I couldn’t really figure it out.

Notable local talent: The cast list is jam-packed with local actors but I struggled to pick out most of them, suggesting that some level of post-production hackery found a lot of roles on the cutting room floor. Bruce Ramsay shows up briefly as a photography teacher that seems to open up a creepy teacher seduction subplot that is immediately dropped, as is a potential love interest for Duchovny played by Macha Grenon. The most notable name in the credits for me, however, is Montreal’s most embarrassing son, Fox News pundit and anti-union, pro-punching-union-leaders advocate Steven Crowder. He’s allegedly in this movie, but since his role doesn’t involve proclaiming terrible opinions at top volume, I couldn’t find him.

secret 2I have to begin this column by coming clean: I have a real soft spot for body-swapping comedies in the mold of Freaky Friday. Even though they’re pretty much always the same, there’s something about them that works for me, even if they’re in the form of a movie where fucking Zac Efron and Matthew Perry are the body-swappers. What I also realize, having now seen The Secret, is that although body-swapping might make for good comedy, this principle of transference does not apply to drama. The Secret (actually a remake of a Japanese film) is a gauzy melodrama that reworks the traditional body-swap structure into something that Douglas Sirk may have made if he was actually terrible.

Ben Marris is an optician living in a sleepy suburban town with his wife Hannah (Lili Taylor) and 16-year-old daughter Samantha (Olivia Thirlby). Their worlds are turned upside down when mother and daughter get into a serious car accident that eventually leads to Hannah’s death. When Samantha returns to Ben, however, something’s amiss; his daughter’s personality has vanished and is replaced by his wife’s. It seems that, while Hannah’s physical body may have died, her spirit has gone into her daughter’s body. This is a lot for both to swallow, since Hannah still has desire for her husband and he’s understandably a little reticent about suddenly being married to his own daughter. The two decide to keep the swap a secret until Sam’s spirit decides to return by itself, prompting Hannah to live her daughter’s life and discover that she isn’t the perfect A student she’d always assumed she was.

secret 3It’s a testament to this kind of plot’s inherent strength that The Secret is perpetually compelling despite being only one step removed from an afterschool special about the dangers of pretty much becoming your own mother. Director Vincent Perez (probably best known as the lead in The Crow: City of Angels) keeps it short and sweet (although the amount of fizzled-out subplots and incomprehensible asides hints at a salvage job in the editing bay) and it has the general watchability of a daytime soap as appreciated through a haze of Sudafed. Yet the film consistently sidesteps all of the more interesting angles of its preposterous plot (like what exactly happened, for one; we get a montage of Duchovny furiously Googling things in a library, but that’s about it) to ease into a retread of Billy Madison where Hannah has to contend with kids these days and their techno music, staircase rape fantasies, ass tattoos and Special K trips.

Despite being saddled with an impossible character, Thirlby does an admirable job channeling Taylor and bouncing off the confusion and flop sweat of being thrust back in the hormonal life of a teenager. Without Thirlby at the centre, there really isn’t much to The Secret at all: a sleepy-looking Duchovny ambling in the background and yelling periodically, some stereotypical bad-kid teenagers dancing lasciviously to Evanescence-esque electro-rock, a fairly brutal car accident and the most narratively convenient hit of ketamine ever filmed. ■

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does It Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter