Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Alice and Martin (France, 1998) ** 1/4

Directed by André Téchiné. Written by Techine & Gilles Taurand. Collaborator, Olivier Assayas. Photography, Caroline Champetier. Editing, Martine Giordano. Production design, Ze Branco. Music, Philippe Sarde. Produced by Alain Sarde. Cast: Juliette Binoche (Alice), Alexis Loret (Martin Sauvagnac), Mathieu Amalric (Benjamin Sauvagnac), Carmen Maura (Jeanine Sauvagnac), Jean-Pierre Lorit (Frédéric Sauvagnac), Marthe Villalonga (Lucie Sauvagnac) Jeremy Kreikenmayer (Martin as a child) and Pierre Maguelon(Victor Sauvagnac), et al. Released by USA Films. In French, with subtitles. 123 minutes. R (sexuality, violence)

The very Gallic writer-director Andre Techine has a special niche in his country's cinema. It is not easily defined or classifiable. He tends to make novelistic movies in which aestheticism and lyricism mix with the psychology of the characters. Techine is also an actors' director. He has baffled certain critics, been praised by others. It's a mixed picture.

Techine's best works have a strong record of awards in festivals such as Cannes (a host of nominations and one win as Best Director); at the Caesars (French Oscars), with four wins (including French film, Director, Screenplay, etc. In the USA his "Wild Reeds" was voted best foreign-language movie by the New York, the Los Angeles, and the National Societies of Critics.

"Alice and Martin" is his 17th feature (out of 18). The three features preceding it were "My Favorite Season," "Wild Reeds," and "The Thieves" all major hits. "Alice and Martin" however has had reviews that range from positive to ho-hum.

In a small town of Southwest France, hairdresser Jeanine lives with her 10-year old son Martin, an illegitimate child. Without explanation except "it's time you met your father" she packs off Martin to elderly industrialist Victor. The latter has an also elderly wife--and three boys with her.

Jump 10 years ahead. Martin, now 20, is seen disheveled, wandering about the country side, looking crazy, stealing chickens and eggs. He ends up in a police station where we learn that Victor had an accident and died. The police does not connect this death with Martin's most bizarre behavior, and does not even hold him for raiding chicken coops. It is all extremely vague, in fact confusing and unconvincing. This is the start of a film that will continue making the audience wonder about who, when, why, how.

Cut to the strange Martin showing up suddenly in Paris.. (Did he have train-ticket money in his shabby clothes?) He looks up his half-brother Benjamin who is gay and an aspiring actor but currently works in a large store, hand scanning people at the exit. (I think this is also symbolism but of what, I cannot tell). At a cafe a woman accosts Martin, hands him her business card and leaves. She, it turns out later, is in the advertising business.

Benjamin shares a minuscule apartment with Alice, about 35 -- a violinist whom the director describes as "repressed." She hardly survives through a variety of musical gigs. (One of her best lines::" Other music wants to heal wounds. Tango keeps them open.")

Alice sounds like a good, serious musician, but how good we do not know. It is interesting to follow her haphazard professional activities in classical and in popular music, but if the subtext includes a criticism of talents that go begging, Techine does not insist on the artist-in-a-garret theme, one that is true, but alas, also banal.

Martin now shares Benjamins-Alice cramped lodgings. Remember the woman with the card? Thanks to it Martin becomes, overnight it would seem (by time is unclear in this film) a hit as a model. He makes very good money (is this a satire of the advertising business? Unclear) He can pay the rent. (Ask not how three people and a cat can fit in the space).

Now too, for reasons equally foggy, he stalks Alice. What is understood however is that the young man has psychological problems. Alice too but not uncommon ones. As the two talk, she relates a rather cock-and-bull story about her young sister who had an incredible memory that suddenly drained out when she had a brain tumor. The girl died at age 11. And so on. Such confidences apparently make A and M draw closer to each other. They become a couple, and couples copulate, of course. Yet, while the act is sudden and energetic, it is not particularly sexy. And there is no strong evidence of " l'amour fou."

Martin has a photo shoot in Spain. Alice comes along. There she has symptoms of pregnancy while Martin keels over from psychic disturbances, is hospitalized, loses his job. The twosome stay in a middle-of-nowhere seashore area of Spain. Martin is getting antagonistic, wants to stop the affair, swims at night in ominous waves. They have no money left.

A flashback to Victor leads us to Martin killing his dad. This explains his mental state and feelings of guilt. Throughout. we spend our time figuring out things. We become like the film characters who grope with people and feelings. There's much more of this in Spain, in small-town France, in Paris and in a mental hospital outside Paris. And more yet.

But I will not reveal anything else about the story, the odd behaviors and the semi-closures. It seems to me that director Techine is really artistic, sincere and a believer in his creatures/creations. But the story, people, techniques and, what in Techine's mind are subtleties, tend to confuse us -- and must have adversely affected him, so that he did not look objectively at what he was doing.

There are several portrayals that flesh out the events. And they score points. But the overall structure is such that it would take a second viewing to "get into" the movie and its virtues.

There is also Juliette Binoche, a major star. She has been in films by Godard, Techine, Carax, Malle, Rappeneau, Kurys, and other major "auteurs." Even more notably she had the lead role in Kieslowski's superb "Three Colors: Blue," for which she won Best Actress at the Felix, the Caesar and the Venice Awards. Then came her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (in "The English Patient.")

Juliette Binoche is celebrated for her talent in showing feelings, reactions, thoughts and the like through eloquent body and especially facial expressions. For "A and M," Techine, who compares her to the great Lilian Gish of silent movies' fame, wanted to give Ms. Binoche a part that would stress her speaking. He did, by in my opinion, not far enough.

Her Alice is Alice in Wonderland, but in the sense that the spectators wonder about what's going on.

Alex Loret who plays Martin, makes here his feature debut. The others are on the unfamiliar side, with the exception of Spanish actress Carmen Maura. She has appeared in almost 70 films since 1969, mostly Spanish (several by Pedro Almodovar,) some French. But here her character is sketchy and without the fire and agitation of her best roles.

French movies can be "la creme de la creme" in showing psyches and brains, complex relationships and behaviors, family matters and conversations, intimate relations, people and situations as they really are. But those characteristics can also go sometimes with obscurities, opaqueness, over-intellectualism, bizarre constructions, unraveled threads and loose ends.

"Alice and Martin" has beautiful photography but is a tortuous and tortured work, with people who can neither make contact among themselves or with the audience. It kept me at arm's distance, although it could be that a repeat screening might remedy some of that.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel