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Alice and Martin

     Critic Robin Wood has made a persuasive case that the greatest films – Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, John Ford's The Searchers, for example – are cathartic and salutary, moving from darkness to hope, from pathology and dysfunction to some evidence of mental health. Andre Techine's Alice and Martin isn't a great film, only a pretty good one. But Wood's favored pattern is certainly at work, as poor, suffering Martin, with Alice's insistent help, gropes toward a nibble of light.
     The movie opens at his age ten, when Martin is shuffled from the comforting home of his single mom (Pedro Almodovar's Carmen Maura) to the estate of his gruff, hard, capitalist dad (Pierre Maguelon). You've seen this terrible uprooting in a hundred Victorian-era tales, from the Brontes to Dickens. But then the movie bolts twelve years ahead, and Martin (newcomer Alexis Loret) races out of his father's gates like Truffaut's Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, and he takes off for the mountains, living by poaching on farmer's chickens like Truffaut's The Wild Child.

     Eventually, Martin gets to Paris, where he shares an apartment with his gay half-brother, Benjamin (Mathieu Almaric) and a second roommate, a struggling violinist, Alice (Juliette Binoche). Improbably, the shy, hardly-speaking Martin gets lucrative employ as an Armani model, and he and Alice fall in love. They retreat to a flat by the sea in Spain, and there things fall apart. The pounding ocean beckons, and Martin flirts with suicide, swimming out and further out. He's also incommunicative and angry with Alice, trying to break them up. But she holds on, until (a long flashback), he confesses his secret: he'd murdered his father, though the death was ruled accidental, by pushing the mean old man down a stairs.

     The rest of the movie: Martin, having a nervous breakdown, needing to confess, needing to deal with his guilt. Loyal Alice, also pregnant, stands by.

     The acting ensemble is impeccable, and Techine (Ma saison preferee, Wild Reeds) is a skilled, veteran cineaste whose first feature came out in 1969. But somehow the story of Alice and Martin never quite ignites. Maybe Martin is just too much an enigma. What remains in memory are the sincerity of Binoche's performance, mesmerizing images of the ocean, and the intense, cinematography of Caroline Champetier, whose talent is capturing the special sensuality of French actresses' faces: here Binoche, in other recent movies, Sandrine Bonnaire, Virginie Ledoyen, Catherine Deneuve, Sandrine Kimberlaine, Isabelle Huppert.

     A word on the incredible Champetier: she is the most important female cinematographer in the world, though her name is not known outside of France. Among her other screen credits: Benoit Jacquot's A Single Girl and The School of Flesh, Philippe Garrel's Night Wind, and Jacques Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle. In 1998, I asked Jacquot about Champetier. "She's now past forty and I've known her since she was nineteen, a student at cinema school and an interviewer on radio for cinema programs," Jacquot told me. "She was very radical, and she has a frightening reputation in the industry because she is very demanding. Everyone admires her talents but is afraid of her, especially those who don't know exactly what they wish to do with the camera."

(August, 2000)


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