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‘Burning Secret’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1988


Andrew Birkin
Faye Dunaway;
Klaus Maria Brandauer
Parental guidance suggested

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"Burning Secret," the new film starring Faye Dunaway and Klaus Maria Brandauer, is muffled and refined in a way that one associates with art house pictures from bygone days -- the ones that gave art house films a bad name. Thinking back on it, you remember subtitles even though there were none.

The picture is a period piece, set on the eve of the First World War, about the delicate young son of an American diplomat stationed in Vienna who is diagnosed as having asthma and sent to a sanitarium in the mountains to recuperate. Accompanying him is his strikingly elegant mother Sonya (Dunaway), who treats him with the pampered affection of a lover.

The boy's name is Edmund (David Eberts) and he's the sort of lad who's dressed up in a sailor suit for dinner. Shortly after his arrival, he meets a dashing baron (Brandauer) who regales him with romantic tales of his exploits at war and quickly becomes his hero. What the baron suffers from we're never certain, but we know it's serious (perhaps even terminal) from the way in which he dismisses it as meaningless.

We also know that he is one of these soul-sick aristocrats with whom one is so familiar from '70s Dirk Bogarde movies. Brandauer approaches the character with reckless disregard; he gives the kind of flamboyant, eminently watchable but thoroughly groundless performance that Peter O'Toole used to give.

As the baron, Brandauer careens from effect to effect -- he plays matador to his emotions. But while there is zest in his acting here, there are inexplicably strange undercurrents as well. The teasing attention he showers on the young Edmund at the beginning of the film is so distinctly sexual that we wonder why his mother would allow it. Pederasty, we fear, is inevitable.

But eventually it becomes clear that the baron's designs were not on the boy but on Sonya, who spurns his advances in one reel with a righteous indignation that guarantees that she is certain to relent in the next. The shift of attention, quite naturally, makes Edmund jealous, and whenever the affair is about to be consummated he somehow becomes aware of it and has an attack of asthma.

The picture is unrepentant, high-toned hooey -- a Hollywood-style melodrama in art house drag. (The Stefan Zweig short story on which it is based also provided the story for a 1933 German version directed by Robert Siodmak.) It's almost impossibly slow in declaring its intentions. By the time we figure out that the picture is a coming-of-age story about a boy's oedipal jealousy, it's almost over. Dunaway still has a fabulous set of bones, but she plays Sonya as if she were stitched into a corset and unable to breathe. To boot, she and Brandauer makes the unlikeliest pair of lovers. When they gaze at each other, something like loathing flashes between them.

Burning Secret, at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and West End, is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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