Alice and Martin (France, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to movies about dysfunctional family relationships and emotionally damaged individuals, few active filmmakers do a better job than veteran French director André Techiné (whose films, especially Wild Reeds, have been modest art-house successes in this country). As in his 1993 masterpiece, Ma Saison Preferee, Techiné uses the canvas of his latest picture, Alice and Martin, to explore the delicate and uncertain balance of the relationships between lovers, siblings, and parents and children in an unstable family environment. The film is also about the price of obsessive love and the way in which secrets and their associated guilt have the capacity to poison everything they touch.

When we first meet Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmayer) in a short prologue, he's a ten year-old boy. The bastard child of a successful business man, Victor Sauvagnac (Pierre Maguelon), and a young beautician, Martin is sent by his mother to live in his father's mansion. Ten years later, Martin (Alexis Loret) is shown fleeing through the gates of that mansion, pursued by unidentified demons. His father has just died and he cannot cope. After a brief sojourn in the mountains, where he lives in a run-down shack and steals raw eggs from a local farmer's henhouse for food, he ends up in Paris at the apartment of his half-brother, Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric). Benjamin, a homosexual, shares his flat with Alice (Juliette Binoche), a semi-professional violinist with whom he has a close, platonic friendship. Martin's entrance into their lives upsets the quiet stability of their relationship, especially when it becomes clear that he is deeply fascinated by Alice. She does not reciprocate Martin's feelings, but, once he has moved out, joined a modeling agency, and begun to have some success in his new career, he challenges her to acknowledge what is between them or stop seeing him.

In many ways, the story is conventional, but the manner in which Techiné chooses to present it is not. As is his trademark, Techiné leeches the melodrama out of the situation, leaving the viewer with starkly detailed but not always comfortable pictures of the protagonists. There is no emotional manipulation here, just honest characterization. Martin is a deeply disturbed, brooding individual whose increasingly erratic behavior is explained once his secret is revealed. (That secret is easily inferred, and Techiné does not intend for it to be surprising or unexpected.) And Alice learns what it means to surrender her heart to someone like Martin. Their relationship begins with the kind of giddy euphoria that marks the early days of nearly every romantic liaison, but the baying of Martin's demons eventually grows too strident to be ignored. Meanwhile, suddenly an outsider in Alice and Martin's lives, Benjamin looks on with ill-concealed jealousy at what they have.

The narrative structure of Alice and Martin, while not convoluted, requires the viewer's attention. Techiné likes to remain one step ahead of his audience, so there are numerous occasions, especially early in the movie, when he intentionally skips over seemingly important events, then recounts them through a line or two of dialogue. Later in the film, an extended flashback sequence is introduced so subtly that it creates a momentary sense of confusion. The ending is somewhat dissatisfying - a tacked-on voiceover that seeks to give closure to a story that has no clean breaking point. Although the concluding note may not be entirely false, it nevertheless feels forced and is at odds with the prevailing tone.

Two of the most powerful human emotions are love and guilt - it's not coincidental that they are the cornerstones of most major religions. In uplifting romantic fantasies, love can provide a wellspring of redemption, but Alice and Martin doesn't offer such a facile resolution. For Martin, love is a distraction, not a panacea; he needs to atone for that which defines his present existence and is, at least in his own mind, a crime. The need to be judged is too strong to be denied. Like a zealot who demands a public flagellation to expiate his sin, Martin's thirst for punishment grows until his mental health is in doubt. Alice, unable to stand by helplessly, chooses to work with him rather than at cross-purposes, and, by disturbing a few skeletons, she learns the reasons behind the haunted look in her lover's eyes.

As Martin, screen newcomer Alexis Loret exhibits more acting ability than one might initially suspect from someone with his pretty-boy looks. He is not out of his depth here; he brings a sense of quiet desperation to the part that never escalates to levels which would damage Techiné's carefully modulated style. Opposite him, Binoche is in peak form, exploring the rhythms of a sophisticated woman who finds herself in a situation she never could have imagined being in, where the past of another person becomes the guiding force of her future.

From a technical standpoint, Alice and Martin is beautiful to look at. Techiné and his cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, have framed their shots in such a way that they enhance the film's appearance without taking away from the characters. There are some stunning visuals - a child throwing open the shutters on a window to reveal a flurry of dancing snow flakes; a character moving through golden, ripe wheat fields with verdant mountains looming in the background; and a body floating in the sparkling, benighted surf. Despite images like these, which would be at home in any great epic, Alice and Martin is an intimate picture that works because Techiné never loses sight of the characters or the struggles that define their interaction.

Alice and Martin (France, 1998)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2000-08-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1