Substance Over Style

Alice et Martin is low-key and emotionally engaging--go figure

At the age of 10, young Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmayer) is forced by his single mother to finally meet the father he had avioded seeing every year. Nothing wrong with that--at least on the surface; boys heading into adolescence need their fathers. Dad (Pierre Maguelon), as is often the case in French society, is fairly rigid and authoritarian, so much so that Martin immediately fakes illness to avoid interacting with him. But Dad didn't get to be rich and successful by being easily duped and sees through the deception, prompting Martin to throw open his windows to the winter winds in the hopes of catching a legitimate fever.

And so begins Alice et Martin, the latest film from acclaimed French director André Téchiné (Rendez-vous). Skip ahead a decade or so, and suddenly Martin, now played by Alexis Loret, comes running from his father's house in apparent terror, never to return, for reasons we will understand later. He roams the countryside for a time, sleeping in old ruins and subsisting on wild fruit and eggs. The life of a savage doesn't last, however, as Martin is caught raiding a henhouse for food and is subsequently arrested. His fines are paid by his stepmother (Marthe Villalonga), but not being a minor, Martin isn't required to wait for her, and so he doesn't, heading instead for Paris and his gay half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric).

Benjamin, who is apparently the only nice person on the father's side of the family, is happy to take in Martin, but one hurdle exists--he already has a roommate, a female musician named Alice (Juliette Binoche). Did we mention Paris apartments tend to be really small? Benjamin's has a few minuscule rooms separated only by curtains, so it's a tough haul for three people. Alice quickly gets frustrated with the arrangement and is repeatedly brusque with Martin, from which we can of course deduce that the two are made for one another. Meanwhile, Martin is instantly discovered by a talent scout and becomes a successful model, causing friction with struggling actor Benjamin.

Alexis Loret, left, and Juliette Binoche make emotional baggage seem lightweight yet sturdy in Alice et Martin.
Alexis Loret, left, and Juliette Binoche make emotional baggage seem lightweight yet sturdy in Alice et Martin.

And that's just the film's first half. The rest gets into Martin's head as Alice tries to help him reconcile the pain he left behind. All this might be irritating if we hadn't already traveled so far with both of them, but since we've been privy to their extended courtship and some of Martin's childhood, we're with them. At the same time, director Téchiné has kept our knowledge of Martin's past selective, that we may better see things from Alice's point of view as she struggles to understand. Much is at stake, because Martin is on the verge of becoming a complete basket case, ready to throw his newly successful life away in favor of obsessive-compulsive patterns.

Binoche is as good as always, and Alexis Loret makes a believable Martin, even if he doesn't quite look like a fashion model. The film's real standout, however, is Marthe Villalonga as Martin's stepmother, but to describe her role in any detail would give away too much. Suffice it to say that it is a key role, and her performance is crucial to the film's last act.

The only weakness of Alice et Martin is that Téchiné seems to have been so focused on the emotional aspects of the performance that he sometimes neglects the visual. There are a couple of stunning moments, particularly the scene in which the young Martin watches his first snowfall at night, but they all take place early, and the rest of the film is simply cameras pointed at people.

For a two-hour film, the ending is incredibly abrupt (albeit somewhat appropriately so, in a non-Hollywood kind of way). But it should be noted that the film doesn't feel long; all the emotional baggage is leavened with wisdom ("Mothers like sacrifice") and humor ("Tell me a place where fish live that ends in ole." "The ocean, you asshole!"). If you like your substance short on style, or just want a change of pace from X-Men, this is the film for you.

 
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