movie review by
David Ng


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Alice et Martin

Alice et Martin traces the lives of two fiercely independent people who cross paths one day and discover that they canít live without each other. Director André Téchiné chronicles their romance in abrupt fits, omitting crucial events and returning to them later, so that Martinís life grows increasingly tangled with Aliceís. (The movieís first shot is of a mosaic comprised of two basic shapes, the one interlacing the other in an endless pattern.) As we learn more about them, we begin to wonder if they are perhaps two halves of the same person. Téchiné, with co-writers Gilles Taurand and Olivier Assayas, drop little clues along the way but deliberately leave them unconnected. The resulting romance is strangely elliptical in the way it leaves out loveís formalities. Indeed, the attraction Alice and Martin feel towards each other doesnít spring from love so much as a desperate need to seek refuge from the world spiraling around them. As people and events pass them and double back with alarming velocity, Alice and Martin find solace by retreating into each other.

Téchiné gives his two protagonists equal but uneven screen time. He first introduces us to Martin (Alexis Loret) as a child. Martin has grown up with his mother, a hairdresser, but leaves home one day to spend the rest of his youth with his wealthy, domineering father, Victor Sauvagnac (Pierre Maguelon). Martin hardly acts like a child. He doesnít want things the way children do; in fact, he mildly despises everything. Victor molds Martin into his ideal of a son, and when Martin becomes an adult, enrolls him in business school. When Victor dies, Martin goes insane. He roams the countryside, raiding chicken coops to feast on raw eggs. He ends up in Paris, at his brother Benjaminís apartment, and here, finally, we meet Alice (Juliette Binoche). We first see her practicing solo violin. She lives with Benjamin, a struggling actor, and allows Martin to spend the night. One night turns into a few weeks, and soon, the three become a family of sorts.

The situation, two men and a woman, recalls Jules and Jim and Téchinéís own Wild Reeds. Alice is in her thirties and Martin is barely twenty. At first, they distrust each other, but then Martin finds a job as a fashion model and is able to help with the rent. When he suddenly tells Alice he loves her, she flees only to return the next day to Martinís studio where they have sex in his dressing room. Already, their lives have become intertwined. When Alice runs away from Martin, she escapes into the Paris metro, only to be assaulted by enormous posters of Martin in a cologne ad. The next day, when they make love, Martin is in full make-up and looks almost feminine, while Alice wearing plain jeans and a big shirt, wears no make-up at all. Their identities blurred, Alice and Martin are in constant (and possibly futile) pursuit of their other half.

What makes their romance believable is the lack of a conventional romantic build up. Téchiné doesnít give their love a beginning. Itís as if it was always there, and they had only to acknowledge it. Alice similarly needs no introduction. She and Martin draw from the same well of emotions and temperament. "As a child, I was against everything," she tells Martin. And as an adult, sheís still defiantly independent, choosing to live with Benjamin, whoís gay and keeps no friends outside of work. Sheís a bit of a loner, and we understand why she would be drawn to another loner when we see her wolfing down a plate of runny eggs in the same manner as Martin.

The thrust of Alice and Martinís love lies around them rather than within. Téchiné creates a world where people (and the camera) never stay still for long. Even in quiet scenes, thereís something moving, even if itís just a train in the background. Téchinéís objective is to disorient his protagonists. People and places spin so fast in one direction that they sometimes appear to be moving the opposite way. It all culminates when Alice tells Martin that sheís pregnant while vacationing in Grenada. The news hits Martin so fast that he goes into a brief coma. Recuperating at an isolated seaside villa, their love seems to evaporate, or rather, their individuality reasserts itself. Martin starts having nightmares about his fatherís death. Alice begs him to return to Paris, but he only grows more distant. Without the distractions that normal life introduces, thereís nothing to throw Alice and Martin together. They grow apart. When Martinís depression turns suicidal, he checks himself into an asylum.

Here, the rest of the story catches up with us. We follow Alice, now alone, as she tries to make sense of Martinís past. She befriends Martinís mother and tries to communicate with his bitter step mother. Bit by bit, we learn about his responsibility for his fatherís death, and more importantly, how the rest of his family feels towards him. Learning Martinís story out of order, we feel the effects of events past before actually witnessing them. When we finally do see them in flashback, itís like an enormous head-rush. Martinís inexplicable behavior goes from inscrutability to clarity in one brief, irrevocable act of violence. And witnessing it all through Aliceís eyes, we know that Martin has become part of her. They live separately now, but somehow this brings them closer together. In one scene, Martin writes a letter to his step mother, confessing to his role in his fatherís death. But itís Alice who reads it aloud to her, lending her voice to Martinís words.

Alice et Martin would not have the same emotional impact if it were told chronologically. The story depends on interlocking narratives and strategic omissions. Téchinéís previous film Thieves uses a similar structure to lift an ordinary crime story from the banal to the unconventional. This time itís a love story and Téchiné relies on the actorsí faces to communicate many of his ideas. Binoche and newcomer Alexis Loret provide two lovely visages that upon inspection, look quite similar. With big eyes and quivering lips, they look like lost children cast hopelessly adrift. Early in their relationship, a confused Martin exclaims, "Everything is spinning." Alice looks at him and replies in calm voice, "The world is, not you."

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]