Dave's Other Movie Log



Alice and Martin***

The good news Alice and Martin brings is that the tradition of the nouvelle vague is still alive and kicking. The bad news is that the tradition is no reliable guide to making a movie. Andr Tchin was born in the same year I was (1943), making him about a generation younger than the stalwarts of the movement. But he was a noteworthy contributor to Cahiers du Cinma in the 1960's, and like his elders moved into directing, making his debut in 1974 with a picture called Souvenirs d'en France that I have not seen, but which boasts a cast that includes quasi-legendary performers like Michel Auclair and Orane Demazis, as well as luminaries of the 1960's like Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann. 

Probably one of the most interesting things about Tchin is how well he, unlike some other members of his generation, has survived. The incredibly talented Jean Eustache (La Maman et la putain) took his own life in 1981; other figures simply vanished into the brush. The Internet Movie Database lists a number of films directed by Luc Moullet, one of the most imaginative and insightful of the contributors to Cahiers in the late 1950's and early 1960's, but the most recent entry only dates from 1995 and most of the titles are unfamiliar to me.  

By contrast, Tchin has had two films that were nearly hits in the USA measured by the standards of foreign film distribution: Wild Reeds (1994) and Thieves (1996), his most impressive movie to date. Nonetheless,  Tchin has remained conspicuously faithful to the ideals of the nouvelle vague and never shamelessly compromised himself as did some of his contemporaries. Since I have some rather critical things to say about his latest work, I would like to start by commenting on what is good about it--and that is not a little.

Alice and Martin is far more obviously indebted to the nouvelle vague than Thieves. The picture has the sort of elliptical, loosely structured, at moments seemingly picaresque narrative that typifies so many pictures by Truffaut, Godard, or Demy from the 1960's, and it makes a far more liberal use of hand-held camera than I have seen for some time, although the cinematography is far more fluid and effective than the hand-held shots in most recent American productions, setting aside the brilliant visuals of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey and Erin Brockovich. (The skilled director of photography is Caroline Champetier.) 

But no one could call Alice and Martin just a recycled New Wave movie. At its best, the film has all the verve and inventiveness of Thieves, and really succeeds in keeping alive the pioneering spirit of the 1960's. Ironically, it is Tchin's quite laudable attempt to keep that spirit alive that forms the problematic of Alice and Martin, as I will explain below. 

The action of Alice and Martin commences in a small town in rural France. The boy Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmayer), born out of wedlock, has been raised by his mother, Jeanine (Carmen Maura) who runs a beauty salon. When she sends Martin to live with his father, a prosperous bourgeois factory owner, the boy resists, and pretends to be ill when he first arrives in his domicile. But Sauvagnac pre, Victor (Pierre Maguelon), will have none of it and orders the boy--whom he hardly knows--to behave properly. 

After this relatively brief exposition, punctuated by a beautiful shot of Martin standing at open window silhouetted by falling snow, the film skips ten years ahead, to show the now grown Martin (Alexis Loret) fleeing from home--immediately following the death of his father. After wandering through the countryside and stealing from a local farmer, Martin is arrested, but freed by his stepmother goes to Paris where his gay half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), an aspiring actor, shares an apartment with the young musician Alice (Juliette Binoche). At first almost pathologically inarticulate and unwilling to tell what led him to flee home, Martin finds work as a professional model and soon becomes the rage of Paris.

These events conclude the first third of the film. Now established in his own right, Martin informs Alice he desires her. At first Alice, who is involved in a close although primarily non-sexual relationship with Benjamin, hesitates but soon finds herself head over heels in love with him. When the pair goes on a photo shoot in Grenada, Alice reveals to Martin that she is pregnant by him as the two are touring the Alhambra--and Martin promptly falls into a faint. 

At this point, Martin regresses to his former state of near catatonic withdrawal from the world. Following a brief stay in a psychiatric ward in a Spanish hospital, he insists on moving to a remote cabin by the sea instead of returning to work. Eventually, after Martin becomes more and more obviously unbalanced, he confesses his secret to Alice: he has killed his father in a fight of anger, but his stepmother, who was a witness to the crime, has hidden the deed in order to avoid a scandal. 

In the last third, the principal action shifts back to Martin's hometown. Following Martin's admission, Alice insists upon going back to Paris, where Martin becomes a psychiatric patient. In the meantime, however, he writes to his stepmother insisting that she denounce him as his father's murderer so he can receive the punishment that he believes he merits. Not surprisingly, Mme. Sauvagnac (Marthe Villalonga) refuses to communicate with him and Alice takes it upon herself to skillfully bring everything to a satisfactory, if not exactly a happy resolution. 

Nevertheless, it takes what seems an unconscionable amount of screen time for her efforts--which among other things require her to haunt the offices of the town's mayor, another of Martin's half-brothers, and to employ considerable politesse in dealing with the stepmother--to bear fruit. But all's well that ends well and the film concludes with Martin in confinement waiting to hear his sentence, although the Penelope-like Alice is more devoted to him than ever before and will be patiently awaiting his return no matter how long it takes until his release.    

Just as each rotation of a kaleidoscope offers a new array of brightly colored forms, so each of these shifts of action in the film opens up a new vista of narrative possibilities: the drama of Martin's flight gives way to the more comic spectacle of Alice and Benjamin's bohemian life, which in turn introduces the story of Martin's career, leading into his affair with Alice, and so on. Moreover, each of Alice and Martin's major narrative sections seems primarily colored by the elective subject matter or style of a well-known auteur. The opening section brings to mind earlier pictures by Tchin himself with rustic settings such as Scene of the Crime or Thieves, but the move to Paris evokes memories of Godard films like Band of Outsiders and Masculine Feminine. With Martin's confession and Alice's efforts to bring about a reconciliation with his family, the film would seem to be moving into the Chabrol mode, but not for long.

Martin's repeated declarations of his desire to be punished point unequivocally to the influence of one director in the final section of the movie: Robert Bresson and to the Bressonian masterpiece par excellence, Pickpocket, a prototypic drama of crime and punishment. The last sequence in which Alice leaves the jail as the voice of Martin is heard on the soundtrack, reading one of his letters to her, unmistakably echoes the famous closing scene of Pickpocket in which Jeanne comes to see Michel. Unlike Paul Schrader's barbaric travesty of the same scene at the end of American Gigolo, Tchin's reprise of it is a credible hommage to a master. Yet a highly problematic one, however well-intentioned, for several reasons. 

First of all, without trying to stack up Tchin's career against the careers of other nouvelle vague directors, living or dead, I would just note that incurring an artistic obligation to Godard or Chabrol is quite a different matter from incurring one to Bresson.  It is in no way distracting if Tchin recalls Godard when he confronts Alice with an enormous poster of Martin in the Blanche Metro station or if he recalls Chabrol when he acidly depicts the way Alice has to parry the petty machinations of the Sauvagnac's on their home turf. However, when Martin begins demanding to pay the full measure of his punishment like one of Bresson's characters, the allusion falls into the movie with all the force of a two ton meteor from outer space. 

Bresson was not only one of the strongest directorial personalities in the history of the cinema, in his movies he created imaginative worlds that are artistically unified like few others, often at the risk of being hermetically sealed off from any contact with the outside. The style of the director and the world he creates reciprocally imply one another to such a degree that it is impossible to imagine a "Bresson" film--even in the sense of a movie which tried to produce a Bressonian effect--without the imaginative world which belongs to it. 

Strictly speaking, no one could "borrow" from Bresson--for example, by trying to imitate his style--without courting disaster. Nor would I accuse Tchin of having attempted something in this vein. What he has tried to do, instead, is to shift the action in the final third of Alice and Martin off onto a qualitatively different plane --to transform the drama of Martin's crime and redemption into a Bressonian one. But the transformation fails. Nothing in the preceding action justifies the transformation of Martin into a Bressonian hero and his tale into a Bressonian subject, unless Tchin were to have utterly altered the film from the ground up. 

For its first two-thirds Alice and Martin, like most nouvelle vague productions, is firmly rooted in the realistic tradition of French filmmaking whose major representative figure is Jean Renoir. More than anything else, Alice and Martin resembles one of Franois Truffaut's interesting failures like The Green Room--which also has a setting in rural France. But Alice and Martin far more closely approximates Truffaut than it ever does Bresson, who certainly does not belong in the realist camp.


Check out these other new reviews:

Chuck and Buck

Isn't She Great


The Perfect Storm

Titan A.E.


E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net



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