||The French seem to have a way with cool, slightly perverse contemporary thrillers, and "Alias Betty" (in the original, "Betty Fisher et autres histoires") shows that Claude Miller is a good practitioner of the skill. Based on a novel ("The Tree of Hands") by Ruth Rendell, it's basically about mothers and children, but hardly handles the subject in a conventional way. Betty Fisher (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a Parisian novelist with a successful book and a single mother with a quiet, frail young son (Arthur Setbon). As the story opens (following a bizarre prologue in which we see young girl, whom we later recognize as Betty, attacked by her mother on a speeding train), Betty is welcoming her garrulous, argumentative mother Margot (Nicole Garcia) to the city, where we learn the older, obviously psychologically troubled, woman is to undergo medical tests. But the tension between mother and daughter becomes insignificant when Joseph accidentally falls from his bedroom window and dies not longer afterward in the hospital. Betty's collapse at the news is witnessed by Jose (Alexis Chatrian), a boy roughly Joseph's age, and soon we're also introduced to his mother Carole (Mathilde Seigner), a selfish, hard-bitten waitress and her live-in current boyfriend Francois (Luck Mervil). Also in her circle are Alex (Edouard Baer), a seedy con-man who may be Jose's father but is now involved with a rich older woman, a bartender infatuated with Carole, and a Russian mobster who takes a lustful interest in her. The linkage between the two plot threads comes when Margot, trying to make crazy amends for her earlier failures as a parent, kidnaps Jose and presents him to Betty as a replacement for Joseph. The daughter's initial horror is gradually transformed into a reluctance to give up the child. Meanwhile Carole's interest in recovering the boy wanes while Francois falls under suspicion for his disappearance, Francois believes that Alex might be responsible, and Alex is involved in a scheme to sell his patroness' house and abscond with the proceeds. Lurking in the background are the highly emotional bartender and a kindly doctor (Roschdy Zem) who's attracted to Betty (as she is to him, despite the fact that he could disclose Jose's imposture), and Joseph's father (Stephanne Freiss)--a slick, unsavory fellow--shows up as well.
The complications and coincidences imbedded in the convoluted plot are legion, and, together with a denouement featuring multiple collisions and ironies, they would strain credulity on screen (as they're less likely to do when spread luxuriously over a few hundred pages of text) were it not for Miller's unforced, quietly expressive style and absolutely electrifying performances from Kiberlain, Garcia and Seigner (who deservedly shared the best actress award at the 2001 Montreal Film Festival). The supporting cast is strong down the line, too. The atmospheric cinematography of Christophe Pollock and the music score, which uses a melange of well-chosen classical pieces, add to the gently unsettling, unpredictable mood.
Like Claude Chabrol, whose "La ceremonie" (1995) was also based on a novel by Rendell, Miller not only recognizes good source material but has the knack for transmuting a very British original into a convincingly Gallic enterprise. Miller is twelve years younger than Chabrol and not quite so prolific, but on the basis of this sharp psychological thriller--whose French title is far more suitable than the meaningless English one--he's not far behind the old master.