It begins with a funny story. A group of friends have gathered on the night of the lunar eclipse for a dinner party. Ben, the only single one at the table, tells a story he heard about a man whose wife found out that he was having an affair only upon his death, when his phone received text notifications from his mistress.
OK, so it’s not a funny story. No one at the table laughs. But it raises an uncomfortable conversation about how many couples keep secrets from each other. “Imagine the number of divorces if each spouse went searching through the other’s phone,” Marie, the hostess, laughs. No one else laughs. They sip their wine. The inevitable ensues: Charlotte, already annoyed by her husband Marco’s behavior over the course of the evening, asks to see his phone. He says he’ll hand it over—if she lets him see hers. They sit across the table from each other with their arms outstretched in front of them, at an impasse. Marie decides to break the awkwardness by suggesting a game: Everyone must put their phones in the middle of the table, unlocked, and whoever receives a call, text, or email over the course of the dinner must answer it on speakerphone or read it aloud to the group. It takes some coaxing, but finally everyone reluctantly agrees. What’s the worst that could happen?
Directed by Fred Cavayé, Le Jeu (The Game) is one of 18 foreign language remakes of Paolo Genovese’s film Perfetti sconusciuti (Perfect Strangers). If you’re wondering if that’s some kind of world record, it is. Within three years of its 2016 Italian release, Perfetti sconusciuti won the Guinness World Record for having the most number of remakes in cinematic history. Each version is a virtual copycat of the original, even down to the square dinner table and the aesthetics of the apartment in which the story takes place. This enclosed, one-room setting makes it a fairly easy film to replicate, which is likely one of the reasons why so many countries have done so. It also lends the film a theatrical quality, whereby each of the remakes feels more like a different stage production of the same play rather than its own film.
There’s another reason why this film is so replicable, however, and that is that it deals with a subject that is easy to translate across cultures. The drama of secrets—of lies, cover-ups, and infidelity—is universal. It thrives on tension born not of Italian, French, or Japanese sensibility, but of our fundamental human impulses. The fears of being confined to small spaces, of being forced to reveal what we’ve kept hidden—and being embarrassed, punished, ridiculed, and rejected—are fears rooted in a weakness that is common to everyone, regardless of culture or ethnicity.
And the game puts everyone’s weaknesses on display. As the dinner progresses and each ding and vibration ushers in the revelation of a new secret, relationships begin to unravel. The secrets start out small. Marie is getting her breasts augmented; her husband, Vincent, is seeing a shrink; Ben has been unwittingly dropped from the friends’ soccer league. Stuff you might not want to reveal at a dinner party, but nothing mortifying. The dinner begins to wade into discomfort as the topics of conversation become increasingly concerned with the characters’ interior lives. We begin to see where their insecurities lie: Marie’s physical appearance, Vincent’s mental health, and Ben’s sense of acceptance among his friends. These are all things that could have been shared at the right time and place, most likely in a one-on-one situation. The forced public revelation, however, turns what could have been a personal gesture of trust into a spectacle of vulnerability.
The night goes on, and the secrets grow in size. We learn that Marco has an online lover—but he covers it up by switching phones with Ben, who has the same phone model, making it look like he’s the one receiving erotic photos. As a result, when we later learn that Ben is gay and secretly has a boyfriend, Marco’s plan backfires and he is the one who gets punished as the cheating “fag.” We discover that Charlotte is making plans to put Marco’s mother in a nursing home, and hasn’t told Marco. Vincent gets a call from his and Marie’s daughter, Margot, who asks him—on speakerphone—for advice as to whether or not she should sleep with her boyfriend. On the same call, Margot confesses her hatred for Marie. We learn that newly married Thomas is cheating on his wife Léa with not one, but two women—one of whom is pregnant. Oh, and Charlotte also has an online lover. It’s a catastrophe, and not the slapstick kind. The kind that devastates marriages and ruins friendships. The kind that makes you want to escape from these despicable people and their secrets and go cry.
I did, in fact, want to cry the first time I watched Le Jeu. I was stunned by the sheer number of affairs these characters carried on, and angry at the utter thoughtlessness of their decisions. What I found just as maddening as the characters’ moral poverty, however, was the fact that the seven friends choose to continue the dinner and draw out the disaster instead of leaving with their spouses to sort things out in private. As a viewer, I felt as though I was intruding on a situation I wasn’t meant to be in as I witnessed spouses confront and accuse each other in the presence of their friends. This is, after all, the sort of scene you’d be embarrassed to walk in on in real life—yet here, you’re invited to stay and watch.
The grand exposé of secrets does not actually begin with Marie’s suggestion of the game, however; it begins with the first few shots of the film. We enter the apartment through a window, floating into the kitchen to find Vincent, who is swiping through photos of bare breasts on his phone. Marie walks in. He quickly turns off his phone. Already the filmmakers have put us in an invasive position by showing us something that no one else has seen. This happens again not two minutes later: we see Marie, pulling a box of condoms out of her teenage daughter Margot’s bag. Within the first three minutes of the film, the director has let us in on two secrets to which we alone are privy. This is the real game the film invites us into: how much do the characters know, how much do we know, and who is going to know more in the end?
These private revelations continue throughout the film, allowing the viewer into secrets long before anyone else finds out, and into some that never actually come to light. Shortly after the guests arrive, we get a glimpse of Charlotte slipping away from the party and removing her underwear in another room. We see Marco whisk Ben onto the balcony and try to convince him to switch phones with him, affording the viewer special knowledge that makes the next 25 minutes unbearably tense. Perhaps worst of all is the private discovery that Thomas is having not one affair but two, his second lover being Marie. We learn this when Marie, after finding out about Tom’s other (pregnant) lover, confronts him privately, and, without saying a word, angrily hands him the earrings she was wearing. We are the only ones to witness this encounter, and at the end of the film, we are the only ones to understand the situation in full—that the reason Marie escaped the fiasco unscathed was because her secret was sitting there across the table from her, in plain sight.
The filmmakers have established a game in which knowledge is the currency. Keep a secret, and you get ahead; share a secret, and you suffer. In order to protect themselves, some characters trade their secrets privately, while others use the distraction of other people’s secrets to cover up their own. But the director, the game’s engineer, has designed it to include another player: us, the viewers. By unveiling certain secrets to the audience before the rest of the characters discover them, Cavayé not only creates suspense, but also sets up a competition between us and the characters. The disparity of knowledge means that we are constantly sizing up what we know against what the characters know. Meanwhile, the director always has the upper hand as the ultimate determiner of who knows what and when.
As moviegoers, we’re used to bearing the burden of other people’s secrets. We’re used to seeing the unseen. To watch a film is to be a spectator of other people’s lives in a way that is more intimate—or more invasive—than is possible in real life. This is how we get to know (and love or hate) characters in the brief two hours we spend with them. We watch them cry, laugh, pray, kill, kiss their lovers, confess their sins, pour themselves a drink, take a bath, eat pie on the kitchen floor, sleep. Oftentimes we’re the only other person in the room: the witness, and sometimes the participant.
All this makes spectatorship sound like a privilege, and it is—sometimes. But the special knowledge afforded to us in Le Jeu does not feel like a privilege. It feels like a burden. Knowing that husbands and wives are cheating on each other and secretly despise one another is not, to put it in most simplistic terms, nice. Why should I care to know who’s lying to whom or who’s betraying whom unless that knowledge has a purpose and accomplishes something for the story? I want it all to mean something, and to move me to something other than outrage. This is the way Le Jeu makes you a willing hostage: by luring you with the hope of discovering what it was all for.
But instead of delivering a purpose, it delivers a punchline. Just as everything has been revealed and all is falling apart, there’s a maddening twist: the night’s catastrophes reverse. After all, it’s the night of the lunar eclipse, and as a news broadcaster reminds us at the beginning of the film, anything can happen. And it does. The eclipse happens, undoing everything that’s taken place over the course of the evening. The game never happened at all. The dinner party ends neatly, and the characters leave the apartment none the wiser. Secrets are wound back up and tucked away. Charlotte and Marco check their phones for messages from their virtual lovers. Ben texts his boyfriend. We see Tom and Léa return home and fall onto a couch in the heat of passion just as a panicked text from Tom’s pregnant mistress pops up on his phone. As Marie and Vincent watch their friends drive away, Marie says it’s a shame they didn’t play the game. “No,” Vincent protests, “in love, as in friendship, some things are best kept secret.”
If this is supposed to be the moral of the story, I want my money back. I’ve been pulled through this mess and now I’m left alone to bear everyone’s secrets on my own? And am I actually supposed to believe that it’s better that everyone continues to live in ignorance—that spouses go on cheating, that friends go on lying—than that the truth be made known? Bullshit.
Secrets serve as the main source of power in the film. The withholding of knowledge enables characters to avoid the consequences of their actions and maintain their façades. As long as secrets exist in a relationship, there’s a power struggle at play—and this is the thing that destroys relationships. To anyone who has ever been lied to, whether in a friendship or in a marriage, Vincent’s trite moral comes as a slap in the face. Because we know that it’s not the revelation of secrets that wrecks relationships, but the fact that the secrets existed in the first place. How are two people supposed to pursue the same things in life together if they’re constantly on uneven ground?
Vincent’s explanation feels just as much like a stunt as the eclipse’s magical reversal of events does because we’ve just spent the last 90 minutes witnessing the destructive nature of secrets. To end the film here feels like a joke on the writer’s behalf. It means that nothing has been resolved. Nothing has actually happened, and this, perhaps, is the real catastrophe. The marriages are still in shambles and the friendships are still fake. The catharsis has been turned on its head, and now we are forced to bear the weight of secrets that aren’t even ours to keep. By rewinding the clock, the eclipse not only condemns the characters to their shadowed lives, but it prevents us from seeing the aftermath of revelation—what could have happened once everything was in the light.
It’s in these final moments of the film that we realize that Le Jeu is exactly what its French title suggests: a game, but a game in which everyone loses, because the board has been flipped from underneath us. We’ve been tricked—and for this reason, the film suggests a reading that runs contrary to the one Vincent offers Marie. Rather than convincing us that we’re better off keeping our secrets, Le Jeu demonstrates what happens when our secrets remain stagnant. Instead of providing relief, they suffocate us.