Alice and Martin

             When women win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of two things
     can happen. Either they are catapulted to the front ranks of screen stardom
     (like Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange) or they flounder, unable to find suitable
     follow-up roles (like Mira Sorvino or Marisa Tomei). Some have even posited
     that there's a curse on the winners. When Juliette Binoche's name was called
     out over the favored Lauren Bacall on that March evening in 1997, one could
     hardly predict which way her career would go. A dynamic performer whose
     work straddled European art films (
Lovers on the Bridge, Blue) as well as
     English-language fare (
The Unbearable Likeness of Being, Damage). The
     luminous actress was the heart and soul of
The English Patient and her
     award was one of the few instances where the Academy got it right.
     Binoche WAS the supporting actress of that year.

             Instead of opting to "go Hollywood", however, the then 33-year-old
     actress undertook the challenge of acting on stage in London. When she
     finally got around to resuming her film career, it was with 1998's
Alice et
       Martin/Alice and Martin
in her native France where she re-teamed with
     writer-director André Téchiné and co-scenarist Olivier Assayas with whom
     she'd previously collaborated on 1985's
Rendez-vous. (For the record,
     Gilles Taurand also contributed to the script of
Alice and Martin.) In both
     films, Binoche was a woman drawn into a tumultuous romantic relationship
     that has a negative effect on the man with whom she lives in a platonic
     relationship. But while there are surface similarities,
Alice and Martin
     attempts more, although it doesn't quite deliver on its promise.

             The film opens with a young Martin about to be shipped to the home
     of his father, a married man with three sons of his own. This being France,
     there is none of the Puritanical stigma attached to being illegitimate.
     Martin has trouble adjusting to his new life, though, as his father clearly
     isn't happy having to take him in. Some 20 years later, the now grown-up
     Martin (played by Alexis Loret in his first major film role) is seen fleeing
     from his father's home and hiding out in the mountains. This rather lengthy
     wordless segment, beautifully shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier,
     shows Martin living in an abandoned lean-to and stealing eggs from a
     local farm. When he is caught, instead of returning to his father's house,
     he heads to Paris to the flat of his half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric).
     Benjamin is the black sheep of the family, a gay man seeking a career as
     an actor. He shares his abode with Alice (Binoche, as beautiful and feisty
     as ever), a violinist. She takes an instant dislike to Martin (a sure sign
     that they will eventually fall for one another) but eventually warms
     to him. Martin refuses to discuss his past and what Alice learns of him
     are bits from Benjamin. He disappeared the day his father died. He didn't
     attend the funeral. He was always considered a bit off.

             Martin possesses striking good looks and soon catches the eye of
     a modeling agent who grooms him for success. While Benjamin and
     Alice struggle financially (dispensing with amenities like electricity and
     heat), Martin becomes a success. For his part, he's always been drawn
     to Alice but his innate shyness kept him from making his move. Eventually,
     though, Martin does declare his love. A guarded Alice eventually gives
     into passion and they become a couple. Benjamin harbors resentment
     and breaks with Alice. Yet despite their initial flush of
l'amour fou,
     there are clearly portents of something more to come.

             Part of the trouble with
Alice and Martin is that the big "secret"
     is both painfully obvious early in the film and is hardly as shocking as
     the filmmakers seem to think. By the second act of this
     two-hour-and-three-minute film, the story has devolved into soap opera.
     While Martin is on location in Spain, Alice announces she is pregnant and
     he collapses, effectively destroying his career. They hole up together in a
     picturesque seaside resort where Martin spends his days swimming and
     Alice seems content to watch him. Eventually, he confesses his "secret"
     and they return to France determined to pursue a righteous course of
     action, but neither anticipates the consequences.

             The weak storyline is not helped by Téchiné's errant use of flashbacks
     to fill in the gaps of Martin's history as on occasion they are more confusing
     than enlightening. Also, the languid pace of the film is detrimental to the
     plot. If it weren't for the talented cast, viewers would lose interest sooner.
     While Loret lacks polish, he does make for a compelling figure and he
     certainly looks as if he stepped off a billboard. The supporting cast includes
     the great Carmen Maura, but she is underused as Martin's mother. Pierre
     Maguelon as Martin's stern, withholding father and Marthe Villalonga as
     his wife make impressions despite their limited screen time. As Benjamin,
     Amalric offers a well-defined portrayal of the prodigal son. But the film's
     centerpiece is Binoche and despite shaky material, this extraordinary actress
     delivers yet another great performance. Her Alice is skittish about taking
     another chance on love and Binoche conveys a great deal just using her
     expressive brown eyes. Similarly, as Alice's feelings for Martin blossom,
     so too does her portrayer.

             While some may feel
Alice and Martin was hardly the best career
      move for Binoche in light of her Oscar, the actress has often confounded
     expectations. (Indeed, her subsequent films like
Les Enfants du siècle
     and La Veuve de Saint-Pierre/The Widow of Saint-Pierre are more
     suited to the art-houses than the multiplexes.) Still, her fans will want
     to seek out
Alice and Martin and savor her seemingly inexhaustible skills.

                                 Rating:                B-
                                 MPAA Rating:        R
                                 Running time:       123 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.