With “Alice and Martin,” an involving love story between two emotionally damaged outsiders, vet auteur Andre Techine returns to the haunting, emotionally intense terrain of such previous pics as 1994’s award-winning “Wild Reeds,” though with harder-edged results. Typically daring in its unflinching exploration of psychological extremes, the film also typically sidesteps any sensationalism implicit in its themes. The presence of Juliette Binoche and, briefly, Spanish thesp Carmen Maura, should guarantee decent B.O. in France and Spain, while Techine’s reputation should lead to arthouse exposure in selected territories. Helmer’s preferred version of the movie world preemed at Spain’s Valladolid fest; in France, it went out Nov. 4 in a version some 10 minutes shorter.
Early scenes show the young Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmeyer) living with his hairdresser mom, Jeanine (Maura), and her taxi-driver lover. Jeanine insists that Martin meet his father, Victor (Pierre Maguelon), but the boy instinctively senses it will end in trouble. When he goes to live with Victor, his instincts are quickly proved right — his father is a tyrant.
In a neat cut, Martin is shown running away from the same house, initially as a boy and then mysteriously, 10 years later, as an adult (Alexis Loret). After wandering across pastoral landscapes and trying unsuccessfully to drown himself, Martin heads for the Paris house of his half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), a gay wannabe actor living in garret squalor with a violinist, Alice (Juliette Binoche), who’s nervous and on edge. Pic’s only dramatic false steps have Martin , on virtually his first expedition outdoors, approached by a modeling agent, and within no time he is staring out from Armani ads.
Incapable of expressing emotion, Martin stalks Alice for a while before she succumbs to his animal charms. Alice’s life is sexless; Martin, whose self-destructive tendencies are rife, desperately needs someone to love. It is only a matter of time before they get it on — in a supercharged scene by virtue of the lack of music and the slow buildup of the relationship.
After much inner debate, Alice leaves Benjamin and accompanies Martin to Granada, Spain, on a modeling shoot. But their happiness is brief: Martin becomes more and more self-obsessed, and when Alice reveals she is pregnant, his decline continues.
Somewhat belatedly — by which time many viewers may already have figured out what happened — the movie goes into a half-hour flashback explaining the complex events leading to the death of Martin’s father. The heart of the mystery is in these scenes: It may or may not have been premeditated parricide. Techine, however, is more interested in determining the point at which the father’s death became inevitable.
Back in the present, Martin, having committed himself to an asylum, wants his case to be taken to court. Alice, mindful of the baby inside her, is determined to prove his innocence.
Pic is thick with the emotional disturbances that lie behind everyday behavior. All the main characters make a telling contribution to the claustrophobic web of feelings the drama comprises.
The superb central perf of Binoche — who first worked with Techine in 1984 ‘s “Rendezvous” — is subtly nuanced as she moves from insecurity to almost obsessive purpose, unveiling the distorted family values that led to the death and which are the primary target of Techine’s critical scalpel.
If the film has a problem, it is with the character of Martin. His inability to verbalize his pain may be psychologically accurate, but it pushes newcomer Loret into a performance that is far too broody. Techine doesn’t quite achieve the miracle of making the audience see matters though the disturbed youth’s eyes; it’s Alice’s dignity that lasts longest in the memory.
Helmer’s avoidance of sensationalism means many of pic’s key events are explained through dialogue, often in a throwaway manner and at times over-leisurely. Caroline Champetier’s stunning lensing deals gracefully with a wide range of moods, from busy urban centers to desolate beach landscapes, while Martine Giordano’s tight editing forms an essential part of the picture’s complex dynamics. Music — Alice is a big tango fan — matches the mood.