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Alice et Martin


By Lianne Habinek

Directed by AndrÉ TÉchinÉ

Written by Olivier Assays, Gilles Taurand, and AndrÉ TÉchinÉ

Starring Juliette Binoche, Alexis Loret, Mathieu Amalric, Carmen Maura, Pierre Maguelon, Marthe Villalonga

French with English subtitles

If you’re like me (and I know I am), you are perhaps weary of the genre Summer Blockbuster, replete as it is with all-too-often hollow plots which sacrifice content for the sake of splashy digital effects. Mind you, it’s not all bad, but a breath of fresh air is welcome every now and then. Alice et Martin, a 1998 film directed and co-written by AndrÉ TÉchinÉ, though not necessarily fresh, is at least a breath of air.

Alice et Martin begins as illegitimate ten-year-old Martin (Alexis Loret) is sent by his mother (Carmen Maura) to live with his father (Pierre Maguelon), who has a family of his own. A sudden cut puts us ten years in the future, as Martin flees his father’s house to live a desperate, animalistic week in the mountains until he is picked up by the police for raiding a chicken-coop. Upon his release, he shows up in Paris to live with his gay half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric) and Benjamin’s violinist roommate Alice (Juliette Binoche). Martin, who quickly finds work and wealth as a model, becomes infatuated with Alice. The two travel to Grenada, where Alice reveals to Martin that she is pregnant with his child. This news sends him into mental chaos -- when he recovers sufficiently, he and Alice move to a sea shack in Spain. There, Martin reveals the real reason he ran away from home in an extended flashback, then checks himself into an asylum while Alice attempts to wrest the entire truth from the rest of his family.

Loret’s performance is remote and undefined, qualities which might have worked against him were it not for their necessity to his character. We are tempted to mistake his youthful ambiguity for numbness, especially during his breakdown scenes in Spain. In Paris, there seems to be little to Loret’s character besides his attraction to Binoche’s obvious charm. He is, however, photogenic, often managing to be far more visually appealing in the ads he models for than in the film itself. Binoche, clear and determined, is refined in her love. She spends most of the film in a post-modern ennui, warming during her search for Martin’s family near the film’s end. Alice et Martin’s emotional center is Amalric, who is loyal, warm, and strongly bound to both Alice and Martin.

The screenplay, elegiac as it is, is nevertheless unworthy of the cinematography. TÉchinÉ’s film begins as something of a photographic essay, with single images extracting themselves from the quietly rustling background -- Martin and his mother in his bead-curtained bedroom; Martin outlined in the window of his father’s house, watching the snowflakes spiraling into blackness; Martin in the countryside, ferociously gulping down a raw egg. Once Martin reaches Paris, the images blur into fluid, lyrical camerawork. The camera is versatile -- it glides as easily through crowded Parisian apartments and nightclubs as it does through provincial France, Byzantine cathedrals, and stony gardens.

Some of the most memorable scenes are also the simplest. In one scene, for example, Alice rides in the subway after Martin has confessed his love for her, and she sees poster after poster flowing past, bearing the ad with Martin’s picture. Martin, at the house in Spain, spends night after night swimming in the ocean, which we can only assume is a metaphor for the raging psychological battle in Martin’s head. Most intriguing is a short sequence near the end, which begins with Martin’s rain-steeped profile overlaid with an Ansel Adams-esque network of tree branches -- he seems to be, and is, caught in a web. The next shot arches out to include his father and the younger iteration of Martin himself at a temporal cross-roads.

There’s very little to smile about in Alice et Martin, and it isn’t a deeply emotional film. It is the marriage of a simple, poignant story and loving, dizzying camerawork. The overall effect? A breath of air.