French director Andri Tichini makes movies that are situated between the openly emotional and the obliquely analytic. At his best, in the 1985 "Scene of the Crime" or the 1995 "My Favorite Season," Tichini has a superb knack for rigorous exploration. He peels back layer after layer of characters and their relationships so finely that at times it's as if he were parsing every nuance. There's never any doubt about what's happening in a Tichini movie. Why things are happening, though, is sometimes less clear. And the combination of straightforward plot and occasionally inexplicable motivation can make his movies feel baffling or distancing.
Tichini's new film, "Alice et Martin," combines both strains of his work; it's fascinating and, at times, emotionally mystifying. It's also beautifully made and, for the most part, beautifully acted. It isn't an entirely successful or satisfying film, but it's far from dismissible.
The film opens with the protagonist Martin, age 10 (played as a child by Jeremy Kreikenmayer), living with his hairdresser mother, Jeanine (Carmen Maura). Martin's father, Victor (Pierre Maguelon), left Jeanine after their fling and Martin has never met him. Responding to Victor's overtures, Jeanine sends Martin to live with Victor, his wife (amazing Marthe Villalonga) and his three half-brothers. Martin, who believes his father wants nothing to do with him, is not happy there.
Suddenly the movie skips forward 10 years, when Martin abruptly leaves home after his father's death and makes his way to Paris. There he rooms with his half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Almaric), a struggling actor, and Benjamin's friend and roommate Alice (Juliette Binoche), a violinist. Martin arrives at their place looking and acting like a hunted animal. He's so fearfully watchful and sullen and closemouthed that he's almost preverbal, nearly a neurotic, more assimilated version of Truffaut's "Wild Child." He comes out of his shell enough to admit to a fascinated infatuation with Alice, who is gradually captivated by his attentions, and the two begin a passionate love affair.
The symbols that Tichini and co-screenwriter Gilles Taurand (who worked on the script with "Irma Vep" director Olivier Assayas) set up are so clearly laden with meaning that Tichini's abstruseness might be a deliberate effort to keep them from seeming too obvious. We know that Martin is fleeing from some disastrous confrontation with his father, but we're not told what until a flashback that comes precisely halfway through the movie. When it does, "Alice et Martin" takes on some of the Freudianism that Hitchcock used in "Marnie," except without Hitchcock's florid expressionism. Martin's finding work as a male model stands for what's unformed about him. During a fashion shoot he affects a vaporous intensity. Away from the cameras he seems raw, closed off and vulnerable at the same time.
This is Alexis Loret's first film, and he's just fine in his opening scenes as the destitute Martin, roaming the countryside scrounging for food on his way to Paris. Tichini gives this section a clipped harshness. The details are certainly obvious here. We see Martin walking past a ski slope in the spring (meant to symbolize that he's perpetually out of place) and later coming across a dead deer being eaten by scavenging birds (meant to convey his perilous physical and mental state). Loret is equal to the harshness, though. He's furtive and desperate, especially when he breaks into a henhouse and hungrily scarfs down the oozings of a smashed egg, and he compels you to watch, promising that what's going on inside him will be revealed.
And though it is, it isn't sufficient to draw you into the character or to explain why Binoche's Alice, who keeps her sexual relationships strictly separate from her personal ones, succumbs to him. Tichini suggests reasons -- flattery, maternal instincts, longing that can't be satisfied by sex alone -- but never strongly enough to make Martin attractive to us.
It may just be Loret's inexperience as an actor, but he stays at a distance, even when a sudden breakdown turns him into a wreck. Clearly, Tichini doesn't want the character to be explained with easy answers. He wants Martin to be a soul in turmoil who is struggling to put together an identity. But if that's the case, why the obviousness of the Oedipal conflict he reveals? The heart of the movie is psychologically simplistic and emotionally removed.
But it's a measure of Tichini's talent that this flaw isn't fatal. What hold your attention are the other major characters, all of them far from blank slates (perhaps because they are more experienced actors). Alice's increasing (and at some level inexplicable) devotion to Martin somewhat hinders Binoche's performance. But she is capable of a washed-out form of Garbo-esque mystery, which she puts to good use here. In one shot, she rides home on the metro at the end of the day, and the combination of the fatigue on her face and the harsh lighting of the subway car conveys a familiar malaise that is peculiarly modern. I don't think I've ever seen such a concise encapsulation of how all the travails of day-to-day life can sap us of hope or ambition, of everything but deep, despairing weariness.
Binoche's best moments come in her confrontations with Maura, as Jeanine, Martin's mother, and with Villalonga, as his stepmother, Lucie. More than 10 years after the Pedro Almodsvar films that made her a star, Maura has come to resemble a voluptuous, less fine-featured Jeanne Moreau. She's an earthy, practical movie goddess. Jeanine, who works hard in her beauty shop, still loves to doll herself up and go looking for fun on Saturday night. When she finally meets Alice, the movie is suddenly bathed in vibrant late-summer colors that might be emanating right from Maura's warm appetite for life. (She even manages to get Binoche laughing in a way that lightens the performance and, thankfully, the movie; Tichini generally doesn't have much of a sense of humor.)
Villalonga, who played Catherine Denueve's and Daniel Auteuil's mother in Tichini's "My Favorite Season," is as reined in as Maura is open. She's a compact powerhouse of an actress with a commanding screen presence. Lucie has suffered at the hands of her husband, but she's fiercely determined not to let anything besmirch his memory. Lucie is a fearsome combination of bourgeois respectability and stubborn peasant stock, and Villalonga's performance is formidable.
As Benjamin, Martin's loving, gay half-brother, one of those people whose deepest bonds are not determined by blood alone, talented young French actor Almaric is more charming and accomplished than he has yet been. His performances in Arnaud Desplechin's acclaimed "My Sex Life ... Or How I Got Into an Argument" and in Assayas' "Late August, Early September" defined an up-to-the-minute callowness. Here, he might almost be playing off the final scene of the Assayas film in which his character goes beyond that callowness. Almaric exudes a scruffy, reckless generosity.
The other important collaborator here is Tichini's cinematographer, Caroline Champetier. The two of them work to make the audience consistently aware of the elements, of the uncontrollable outside world, whether it's the metro that screams past the windows of Alice and Benjamin's apartment, the beating sun of the Greek coast, transforming the green of the French countryside into unforgiving terrain, or, in perhaps the most memorable shot, the rain that beats down on Martin as he sits in the grounds of a hospital.
"Alice et Martin" has its faults, but there's some real meat here, in the performances and direction. It's an art-house version of those Freudian dramas Hollywood churned out in the '50s and '60s when psychoanalysis became suddenly chic, a little like sitting down to a meal that's both fussed over and underdone. But it doesn't leave you empty.