At the age of ten, young Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmayer) is forced by his single mother finally to meet the father he has put off 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, who didn't get to be rich by being easily duped, 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 out of 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 arrested. His fines are paid by his stepmother (Marthe Villalonga); but not being a minor, Martin isn't required to wait around for her, and so he doesn't, heading instead for Paris and his gay half-brother, Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric).
Benjamin, apparently the only nice person on the father's side of the family, is happy to take Martin in, but there's one obstacle: 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 by only 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 each other. Meanwhile, Martin is instantly discovered by a talent scout and becomes a successful model, causing friction with struggling actor Benjamin.
Alice et Martin
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And that's just the film's first half. The rest deals with the past and gets a lot more 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, Téchiné has provided only the sketchiest of details of Martin's past, so we may better see things from Alice's point of view as she struggles to understand. A lot is at stake, because Martin is on the verge of becoming a complete basket case, ready to throw away his newly successful life in favor of obsessive-compulsive patterns.
Binoche is as good as always, and Loret makes a believable Martin, even if he doesn't quite look like a fashion model. The film's real standout is Villalonga as Martin's stepmother, but to describe her role in any detail would give away too much. Suffice it to say that it's 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 on. The rest of the film is simply cameras pointed at people. And surely a little more makeup could have been utilized; some of the characters who appear in Martin's childhood show up again during his adulthood looking exactly the same age.
These are forgivable flaws, but ones that a veteran director would have avoided. And 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 o-l-e." "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.