Engaging, character-driven thriller
Dennis Littrell | SoCal | 01/21/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am somehow reminded in the storyline of this film of the work of mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley; A Game for the Living, etc.) There is the same slightly genteel sense of mystery, realism and a women's point of view that characterizes Highsmith's work. In this case we have a young woman who loses her four-year-old son and then unexpectedly gains another. This intensely personal experience is set in the strata of contemporary French society. There are people in the projects, there is the underworld of petty criminals and prostitutes, and in contrast there are those who live in country homes beyond the suburbs. It is there that Betty, who is a novelist who has just published a best seller, lives.What director Claude Miller has done with this material is to make it dramatic and to tell the story through the medium of film. That may seem obvious, but how many film makers fail to understand the differences in media and end up with too much talk and too little use of the camera to good effect? Miller shows us commonplace scenes of the projects and contrasts them with the fine homes of the well-to-do. He shows us the long limbs and slightly gawky beauty of his star, Sandrine Kiberlain, who plays Betty, and he contrasts her to the fleshy woman of the streets and bars, Carole Novacki (Mathide Seigner) who is the mother of the boy that Betty gains. He also compares and contrasts the craziness of Betty's mother Margot (played with a fine fidelity by Nicole Garcia) with similar, more muted manifestations in Betty herself. There are interiors of luxury and grace, and those of people living temporary lives in high rise block apartments. One gets a sense of France in the twenty-first century adding texture and place to a woman's story that could happen in almost any city in the world.The opening scene shows Betty as a little girl on a train with her mother. We are told that her mother is suffering from some compulsive mental illness. We see her stab her daughter in the hand. And then we are fast-forwarded to the present and Betty is with her son Joseph, a scar on her hand, without a husband, going to her house in the countryside. Mother re-enters and we see that she is indeed a mental case, absurdity self-consumed and insensitive. When the boy falls out of a window and dies from the brain damage, Betty is in something close to catatonic shock, but her mother thinks only of her own welfare and seems indifferent to anything else.And then comes the twist.I won't describe what Margo does now because it is so interesting to see it unfold. At any rate, Betty is forced to come out of her depression and embrace new love and new responsibilities and to indeed commit a most criminal act, that of running away with another's child. And yet somehow we are made to feel--indeed the events of the plot compels us to feel--that she does the right thing in spite of her initial feelings and in spite of what would normally be right. Later on in the film there is another nice twist when the father of the dead boy returns and wants his share of Betty's success and fortune.What I think many viewers will appreciate here is that the players look and act like real people, not like people from central casting. Alex Chatrian plays the second little boy and he is a charmer, and beautifully directed by Miller. Kiberlain's laconic and wistful portrayal of a woman with so many choices won her Best Actress awards at the Montreal and Chicago film festivals. She has the kind of beauty that grows on you, yet is not glamorous or glittery, but when she smiles, as she so seldom does in this movie, she lights up the whole screen. And Seigner looks like a common woman, not like a Hollywood star dressed up like a prostitute.The men are also interesting and also very real. Luck Mervil, who plays Carole's boyfriend, is restrained like a volcano that one knows will eventually go off; and Stephane Freiss, who plays the father of the dead boy, and Edouard Baer who plays a scheming lower-class gigolo, are two very real varieties of men who prey on women.The ending is witty and satisfying, and I can tell that Claude Miller has seen Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) starring Sterling Hayden since part of this scene recalls the finale in that American film noir with the money flying out of a suitcase during a chase scene at an airport. Or perhaps that bit is from Rendell's novel (which I haven't read) and it is she who recalls Kubrick's film.This is a thriller that manages to also be an engaging chick flick, if you will, a commingling of character and story that is in the best tradition of film making, and one of the best films I've seen in months."
Edward Lee | 07/17/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've always liked jigsaw puzzles. In my humble opinion, the universal appeal of the jigsaw puzzle is simple: it's the pleasant surprise at how all of the seemingly disjointed pieces fit nicely together into one compelling portrait.Such is the case with the marvelously stylish French film, "Alias Betty."Bridgette (played with winning subtlety by the lovely Sandrine Kiberlain), alias Betty, is a best-selling author who returns home to France, escaping the New York life she's led for several years. A return home means a reunion, of sorts, with her mother, an emotional sick woman unintentionally gifted in the art of psychological torture ... as well as a secret history of purely physical acts as well. However, the sudden death of Bridgette's young son, Joseph, sets into motion a series of cleverly arranged events -- a bit uneven in the film's first act only because not all of the characters -- nor the role they will inevitably play -- have been revealed. By the second act, the film manages to pull the viewer into its intricate web as the puzzle slowly begins to take shape, allowing the tension associated to one rather diabolical act -- the kidnapping of Jose to replace Bridgette's deceased Joseph -- becomes far more calculated and captivating.The director manages to craft several storylines -- skillfully juggling the moments with only the assistance of miscellanous screen captures titling segments of the film, much like chapters of a book -- into one seamless whole. Despite some brief screen time for major participants in this well-drawn yarn, all of the actors are in top form, all purely driven by only the decisions their specifically designed characters could make.Be warned: "Alias Betty" is not for everyone. The story's pacing is purposely plotted out to allow for each of the plot twists to evolve far more organically than most Americanized thrillers (don't look for any frenetic cuts or dramatically punctuating music), and the film's pleasant score softly weaves hand-in-hand with simple images. There is no 'rush to judgment' here. Consequently, there are no sudden moments of realization. This is a study in the psychology of character, and the tension is predicated on moments of character choices, not action. The film may frustrate some viewers who would've sacrificed such seemingly elementary subplots as Betty's ex-husband returning to reclaim his ex and even the seemingly unimportant police investigators struggling to find a single lead in Jose's disappearance.However, the patient viewer will find reward in learning that every frame committed to the completed film serves its own purpose in the end ... once the picture behind the masterful jigsaw puzzle is finally revealed."
Wonderful french film
Edward Lee | 11/05/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is a wonderful example of a modernist suspense thriller. It keeps the viewer involved with a storyline that keeps you guessing yet also lets the viewer keep enough objectivity to evaluate the actions of the characters. It also has great visual design, esp. the use of color. Any film buff would appreciate how well put together this film is."