Alice et Martin, directed and co-written by André Techiné, is an unconventional romance of a type that the French are so good at, but it is also a complex psychological drama which, I think, loses itself in its own complexities. At the level of the cinematic or dramatic detail it is a fine film. The character of Martin (played as a boy by Jeremy Kreikenmayer) is particularly interesting. The illegitimate child of Victor Sauvagnac (Pierre Maguelon), a wealthy businessman, and Jeanine, a fun-loving Spanish hairdresser (Carmen Maura), he is uprooted from his happy home with the latter and, in the hope of social advancement, goes to live with his enigmatical father. The old man seems at first tough with the boy but not unsympathetic. He tells him that living with him will “help you succeed later,” which is what his mother had also said. Yet it appears later that Victor is a domestic tyrant of a familiar type, who brought the boy into his home to “piss off” his four legitimate sons
In any case, social advancement has been wasted on young Martin (Alexis Loret) by the time we see him again, twelve years later. Some of the intervening years will be filled in later, but now we see him leaving his father’s house under strange circumstances. Victor has fallen down the stairs and broken his neck, and Martin is seen running out the door and living rough in the countryside until he is caught stealing eggs. Bailed out by his step-mother, he decides to go to Paris to stay with Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), the only one of his half-brothers to whom he is close. Shy and withdrawn, Martin appears to have no head for business or education but just a dreamy kind of charm, which gets him a job as a male model almost as soon as he gets to Paris. The job suits him. “I’m like a robot,” he says; “it’s fun.”
His brother Benjamin is a homosexual who rooms with a beautiful violinist called Alice (Juliette Binoche), who soon becomes an object of fascination for Martin, who doesn’t see many people and is lacking in social graces. He follows her, rather creepily, like a stalker. Why doesn’t he just come up to her and talk? she asks him. “I don’t have anything to say; I just wanted to see how you spend your days.” She is rather alarmed when, finally, he declares his passionate love for her, and she rejects him. “There are guys I f*** and guys I like; I keep them separate,” she explains. “Benjamin’s the same. That’s why we get along… Besides, you’re not my type.” He, that is, is a “cute kid” while she is a woman of the world.
But where we expect her rejection to have a devastating effect on Martin, it is worse for her. The cozy separation of the urban sophisticate between love and sex has begun to break down without her fully realizing it. Soon she changes her mind and she and Martin become lovers. This affects the intimacy between Alice and Benjamin, whom she calls Zorro and treats like a cuddly toy. “We take turns being one another’s child,” Benjamin explains. But as a gay guy with a taste for rough trade, the excitement Benjamin has brought to Alice’s life is not necessarily what she has been longing for. “Killers turn you on the most…” she tells him after he is beaten up by a pick-up in a hotel. And this becomes a kind of metaphor for his general improvidence and risk-taking. He spends all his money on sex and doesn’t pay the electricity bill. “It’s like with sex, you court disaster… Everything here is getting f***** beyond repair,” she says to him.
Yet Benjamin is jealous of Martin and resents Alice for having turned away from his brotherly caresses. He complains of having gone from being Zorro to Zero. Martin in turn is annoyed by his jealousy. When Alice and Martin go off to Spain together for a photo-shoot, Martin is taken ill at the point where Alice has to tell him she is pregnant. It soon becomes clear that his illness is more than physiological. He recuperates in an isolated villa by the sea, where he is only comfortable in the water. The money runs out. Alice becomes more and more desperately in love with him. He tries to drive her away. She refuses to be driven “You can’t make me hate you,” she says. “There’s no going back for me. …You once said you were fighting for me. Now I’m fighting for you.”
“I need to stay here alone,” he pleads.
“I can’t let you,” she replies. “You’re not well.”
“We have to break up,” he insists. “I’m starting to hate you.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
It is all very romantic in an old-fashioned way and well worth the viewer’s time up to this point, but the rest grows rather tedious. We flash back to the period just before Martin left home and delve into the reasons for his alienation from both family and Alice. There are far too many psychological complexities to the relations between various members of the Sauvagnac family (to say nothing about Martin’s mother, who also makes a reappearance), and these become more and more of a distraction from the romance rather than just providing the occasion, as intended, for working out the implications of Alice’s unconditional commitment. Unlike romantic love, patriarchal tyranny and its psychosexual effects, particularly on sensitive young men, is a cliché that one does get tired of. But where the movie is good, it is very good.