Category Archives: Archived Movies

ALICE ET MARTIN

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C+

Audiences will be widely divided over Andre Techine’s new film. Some will find the moody, deliberately-paced piece, about the love between a beautiful violinist and a young man tormented by his upbringing, wonderfully mysterious and evocative. Others–no doubt the majority–will be put off by its halting rhythms, its willful obscurity, and its refusal to flesh out its characters. The fact is that one can respect the control and precision that Techine exhibits in “Alice et Martin,” but it remains, for all its elegance and good taste, a cold, remote picture, with moments of brilliance that never cohere into a satisfying whole.

The tale opens with a prologue introducing us to the adolescent Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmeyer), the illegitimate son of an imperious businessman (Pierre Maguelon) who goes to live with his father after spending his youth with his hairdresser mother. Abruptly the scene shifts ahead a decade, when we see Martin (now played by Alexis Loret) fleeing the house after Victor’s death. He makes his way to Paris, where he takes up residence with a gay half-brother, the aspiring actor Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric) and the latter’s lovely roommate Alice (Juliette Binoche). Martin, a blank but beautiful fellow, is soon transformed into a successful model, and after some initial uncertainty he and Alice fall in love. It soon becomes apparent, however, that he’s psychologically unwell, and his difficulties eventually lead Alice to investigate the circumstances of his father’s death and his strained links with the rest of his family.

Like Techine’s previous films, especially “My Favorite Season” (1993) and “Wild Reeds” (1994), “Alice et Martin” is basically about the tenuousness of relationships among emotionally damaged people, but while in those earlier works his graceful, allusive style brought ample rewards, here it seems forced and contrived. Most seriously, the two leads are never made sufficiently real to resonate with the viewer. Loret’s Martin is a particular problem: he’s certainly a good-looking fellow, but his performance is all on the surface, without the shading that would bring his troubled psyche into relief. A similar problem infects Binoche’s Alice: she too remains obstinately unrealized, despite the talented actress’ obvious efforts to bring her to life. The members of the supporting cast all offer occasional flashes of perception, but they too seem stranded in a narrative that, in the final analysis, is just too literary for its own good; one can imagine this material working better on the printed page, where motivations and deep-seated fears could be explored more fully than they are here.

There’s also a problem with the picture’s structure. After Martin’s collapse, the plot switches back so abruptly into the past, then lurching forward once more to deal with Alice’s researches into it, that the viewer is apt to lose his way. The sense of dislocation is doubtlessly intentional, forcing upon the audience the same feeling of uncertainty that both Alice and Martin experience, but many will find the effect less cinematically persuasive than merely confusing.

Slow, somber and emotionally opaque, “Alice et Martin” is a film that one can admire for the rigor with which its makers hold fast to their peculiar vision and approach, but which ultimately fails to generate the flash of human recognition that would make it the wrenching portrait of familial pain that it so obviously aims to be.

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

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F

The sap might not be streaming down the trees of Central Park in the innumerable scenes set there in Joan Chen’s slick but hollow sudser about a May-September romance between a middle-aged, woman-chasing restaurateur and a 22-year old girl doomed by illness (who just happens to be the daughter of one of his old flames), but it’s practically encrusted on the screens of auditoriums showing this monumental piece of treacle. Chen made a deeply affecting debut feature, the astonishingly assured “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” in 1998, but she’s stumbled badly with her first big-studio effort. Not a single moment of “Autumn in New York” rings remotely true, nor even one line of dialogue even slightly real, and it lurches from one Big Moment to the next so clumsily that one gets the feeling that large chunks of narrative were lopped out at the last moment (though that hardly seems cause for distress, given the quality of what remains). At once crushingly trite and oppressively maudlin, the picture has echoes old chestnuts like “Dark Victory” (1939) but utterly lacks the soapoperatic energy that enlivened such classic pieces of schmaltzy claptrap; instead, it’s just a dismal dirge.

One might have expected Julia Roberts to have teamed up with Richard Gere once more in a lugubrious weepie that could easily have been titled “Pretty Dying Woman,” but she probably passed either because she’s been down the terminally-ill lover route before (in 1991’s dreadful Joel Schumacher opus “Dying Young”) or because she quickly realized that although it’s the distaff partner who’s got heart trouble, the narrative is really centered on the guy. And so we watch Gere, that most self-absorbed of actors (if the myth of Narcissus is ever brought to the screen, he’s a cinch for the lead), overemoting balefully for some ninety minutes as an overaged Peter Pan who finally gains maturity by falling for a gal he can’t hold onto (his character, Will, even makes contact with the Daughter He Never Knew in the course of the narrative, showing how much he’s grown emotionally). Gere is supposed to be irresistible as a fellow whose flippancy turns first to woozy ardor and then to profound grief, but what he oozes here is hardly charm; even at the close, when he’s going crazy over his lover’s deteriorating condition, his pain seems to be all about himself rather than her, and in both his initial smugness and later distress he comes across as quite insufferable. Winona Ryder’s performance as perky, pitiful Charlotte is no less corrupt. She plays the character as though the poor girl were mentally impaired, alternately scrunching up her face embarrassingly to suggest naivete and beaming bug-eyed at the glitzy events to which Will escorts her as though she had never been out in public before–except, of course, for those moments when she overexerts herself and suddenly gets all weak and trembly. (Toward the close, of course, she takes to bed as Will summons a Supersurgeon, played by J.K. Simmons, the shrink from “Law and Order,” to save her. The incapacitation may not provide any relief to Charlotte but at least saves viewers from any more of her scrunchy faces.) The picture is pretty much a two-character affair, so the supporting players don’t have any great opportunity to make their mark; but Anthony LaPaglia gets a few smiles as Will’s sourpuss maitre d’, and Elaine Stritch is certainly noticeable–though hardly in a positive way–as Charlotte’s besotted grandmother. Jill Hennessy, another “Law and Order” player, appears as Will’s long-forgotten daughter, and Mary Beth Hurt shows up in a couple of brief scenes as Charlotte’s physician, but neither does anything beyond looking sad, which they do professionally enough.

One shouldn’t blame the actors too much, though. The material given them is so clearly subpar, and Chen’s direction so solemn and flaccid, that they never had a chance. Mushy and mawkish, with its hamfistedness accentuated by Changwei Gu’s prettified cinematography and Gabriel Yared’s gooey score (far too heavy on the harps), “Autumn in New York” is, in the final analysis, a failed tearjerker at whose denouement there probably won’t be a wet eye in the house. During one of their interminable outdoor chats in the picture, poor Charlotte remarks to Will that for the first time she can actually smell a recent rainfall. The odor emanating from the screen, however, will surely strike viewers as redolent of something far more pungent. By opening the flick in early August, MGM has merely insured that it will have vanished from theatres long before the coming of its titular season.