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.