The Secret: (If I Were Who??)


First comes love, then comes marriage;
then comes a baby in a golden carriage.
That’s not it! That’s not all!
The baby’s drinking alcohol.



Why would a supernatural love story choose a poster for itself like this? After all, the film’s about a family that loves each other: a husband, his adoring wife, and their daughter. If there’s any tension, it concerns mother and daughter, not the dad. So why an image that suggests something more sinister, as if it was secretly a tale of horror?

This is not an idle question; nor does it use a foreign poster to create insinuations. Even though the film uses American actors, it was made under the auspices of EuropaCorp and produced by Luc Besson, among others. It’s as if, in their eyes, the "secret" involved a struggle to the death.

The questions for an American working backward (from English to French) are compounded when we notice that the film’s title is different too – "If I Were You" (Si j’étais toi) – although it’s not quite clear who’s speaking to whom. Is it the husband (and father) who has plans for his daughter that are different from what she’d choose for herself? Or is it the daughter speaking of her dissatisfaction about how her mother’s leading her own life? Or perhaps the voice belongs to another?

poster-USThe American poster, tame in comparison, hints at something else, suggesting that the daughter’s forced to live under a shroud of silence. So, while the French version might use the imagery of horror, the secret here gains its weight from an imperative imposed upon a child.

Which might be why the English tagline also differs: "Sometimes a gift can be a curse." But what gift is being talked about here, and what’s the curse? Might it have something to do with the daughter and the mother, and the names by which they’re known? Or might it have something to do with the playground taunt that warns about the course of love?

Might that be why the French poster speaks of two destinies pitted against each other, as if the daughter was fighting for the right to be born ? If this were true, then her mother would be her only ally, especially since her father would be asked to relinquish his wife.

Si J’etais Toi (deux destins, une seule vie)
If I Were You (two destinies, one life)


Perhaps that’s why the film opens with the husband looking into a woman’s eyes, telling her they’re beautiful, only to have them revert to polite conversation when the examination is done: talking about their respective children, about how amazing they are and never wanting to let them go.

And perhaps that’s why, in the scene that immediately follows, we see his wife and her friends enjoying an off-color joke about a fainting husband and spongy lips, as much for the humor of the story as for their ability to embarrass the uptight women eavesdropping on their conversation.

And maybe that’s why, when the husband returns home, we’re witness to the ritual that makes her weak in the knees: hearing how, despite all the eyes he’s looked into that day, his day doesn’t really begin until he’s looked into hers.

Maybe that’s also why, when seated at the dinner table, the daughter can’t wait to get out of there, wanting desperately to be somewhere else. And why, later, in the midst of an argument, she’d yell at her mother to get a life.

Where's My Daughter

And yet, it’s precisely the ensuing accident that produces the scene from which the French poster is taken, in the hospital, after wife-and-mother is declared dead. It’s also the scene in which we’re first made aware of the haunting that defines the remainder of this tale: two spirits inhabiting the body of the teenage child. During the weeks and months that follow, it’s the spirit of the mother that predominates, taking possession of the body (and life) of her daughter.

Upon awakening from unconsciousness and upon discovering her own body is gone, it’s at that moment that she loses all composure, realizing she’s already dead, but also at wit’s end about the fate of her missing daughter. Shouting loudly, screaming for the one who’s gone, the one whose body she now inhabits.


Her husband, just as frightened and confused, holds her to the ground and, soon, the doctors will come to sedate her, saying she’s suffering from a psychotic break, all the while mystified as to why this teenager would think she’s her own mother. And as the camera pulls back, we hear her scream at those trying to restrain her:


Where there was once two, there’s now one. Or more precisely: the two previously separate, now share a single home. Trying to figure out how life will continue in the wake of an accident that changed their lives forever.

Secret Lover

And yet, as the story unfolds, we learn more about the daughter’s life that only adds to the confusion. New questions emerge that pile up on her parents’ dilemma, something mother-posing-as-daughter comes to realize very quickly.

As if mirroring the idea of competing destinies, she’ll discover her daughter was surrounded by boys, two in particular: a "bad boy" who swoops in unannounced, dragging her to the nearest corner that offers any semblance of privacy, and another who, in comparison, looks more like a sad puppy, especially when she’s whisked away by the secret lover who claims her as his own.

When she defends herself (and her daughter) against the boy’s advances, he lashes out at her quest for independence. What’s your problem? You like playing with me before. And his anger only escalates when she says it’s definitely over, that she can’t return to the way things were before.

You just cut it off? Just like that?
You know, I thought you were different from all the losers here.
I thought you were a risk taker. I thought you were different.

The words are meant to cut her, a kind of verbal assault. Perhaps they harken back to an earlier conversation they’d had about the courage required to take such risks. Clearly, in his mind at least, she’s now fallen short of the standard to which she’d been held. No longer his special playmate; now declared a loser.

(It’s almost as if his mauling her, both physically and verbally, were no different than the image provided in the movie poster. As if they were one and the same. … One plus one equals one?)


Because of the distance that’s beginning to grow between them, the husband will intercept the boy who spends so much time with the girl, trying to get a sense of what’s happening in her life, trying to understand why she’s drifting away. Maybe she’s doing drugs, which would certainly explain her erratic behavior.

When he hears how much the boy loves the girl, the father can only laugh. How much could the kid possibly know about love?! More importantly, how much could he possibly know about what’s happened since the accident and the kind of changes they’ve been hiding from the world?

So his humor soon changes to indignation, glaring at the boy who would compete for his daughter’s affections. Quite unexpectedly, he launches into a speech about the nature of love, as if he were only beginning to realize what it meant to love the girl as a father. Startled by the father’s outburst, the boy’s confusion is only heightened by the man’s presumption to lecture him about what it means to love another. And yet, the unspoken message comes across loud and clear: "Stay away from my girl."

Beginning to Write

Such is the mess that surrounds her, the noise that gets in the way of trying to figure out what to do, stuck in her daughter’s body without knowing why she’s gone. And yet, it’s an argument with her husband-father that will trigger the most significant change to date. For in the heat of her frustration and anger, she takes pen to paper and begins putting words to page. No longer satisfied with reading her daughter’s diary, no longer able to passively sit and wait, she begins to use it as a place to vent and reflect.

It’s less the process of writing itself than creating a space unencumbered by the expectations – or judgments – of others, a space that allows for the kind of self assertion never available to her before. She can tumble into her confusions or trace the lines of her sorrow without worrying what anyone else might think. She’s also able to give voice to questions that might otherwise be too dangerous to say aloud.

In the process, the spirit of the mother slowly changes, no longer merely pretending to be someone else. And in this way, she – unknowingly – paves the way for her daughter’s return. In establishing herself in this way, a new kind of confidence quietly grows. One that’s not dependent upon the approval of others or the roles she’d taken to ensure herself a place in the world. In other words, she achieves precisely what her daughter had wanted in her mother.

In truth, when the transition is complete, when her daughter returns to her body, the mother doesn’t really disappear. In living the life of her child, she had no choice but to make that life her own. Rather than pretending to be someone she wasn’t, she infused her daughter’s life with her own talents and abilities. And in doing so, the two became one. No longer strangers who looked at the other with indifference or confusion, the gulf that once separated them finally closed.

Shadow Existence

Many of us seek to meet our basic needs for comfort and security in the bonds of marriage; for others, it might be a job, an institution, or a cause. Sometimes, it’s sought in them all. But this reliance upon an external reality – made to feel all the more secure by contractual agreements of various sorts – can also create a prison, precisely because of the kind of stability that was originally sought. In other words, once the deal is closed, it’s almost impossible to escape.

For the Marris family, the marital bliss between husband and wife relegated their daughter to the shadows, a haunted being free to come and go, even while denied the basic soul requirements for truly living. (Is it any wonder that the baby might turn to drinking?)

When this happens – when security becomes a prison – it usually takes something like an accident to force a change, which is exactly what happened: all sense of comfort thrown out the window, all priorities radically altered. The wife’s mission in life became one of finding her daughter, perhaps even discovering what it meant to be a mother, herself.

Her husband had treated their child like an adult, playing fast and loose with the rules. As a result, she had looked to him when making a request, knowing that he’d probably indulge her, no matter what her mother might think.

But after the accident, all of that changed. A realignment was in the making: the mother finally in charge of raising her own daughter, desperately seeking her child with as much urgency as if she were looking for herself. Ironically, with the two now inhabiting the same body, they’d never speak face-to-face again.

And yet, by virtue of her mother’s efforts, the daughter is guaranteed what had previously been denied: a life lived on her own terms (rather than another’s) and the freedom to pursue her own happiness.



~ by mistified on September 27, 2011.

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