Following her Oscar win for The English Patient, Juliette Binoche returned to her native France and acted in Alice et Martin. This reunited her with Andre Techine, director of one of her previous triumphs, Rendez Vous, made when she was new to the game of cinema, for want of a better phrase. The move was a smart one, given the slightly troubled production history of Anthony Minghella’s still excellent film.
In doing so she gave what I consider to be her greatest performance to date; Alice et Martin is magnificent, largely due to acting of remarkable sensitivity, pronounced, almost microscopic subtlety, believably and emotional range from Binoche. Due to release schedules and performance expectations, the public of England had to wait until December 1999 to see the film. I saw it at the now defunct Hull Screen in late March 2000 and it has remained with me ever since.
The story is deceptively simple. Martin, a bastard fathered by the cold, uncommunicative head of a rural middle class family enjoys a strained relationship with his parent, always understanding of his place and regard within the family structure. Following an off-screen trauma, we see him flee into the country and live almost feral for a brief period of time. After his release from arrest for stealing from farmers to sustain his wild child isolation, Martin makes his way to Paris to be reunited with a person that always showed him warmth and love, his half-brother Benjamin. At the apartment he encounters Benjamin’s flatmate Alice.
We learn that Martin and Benjamin’s father has died. Benjamin is gay and an aspiring actor, Alice a struggling musician. Martin finds himself drawn into Parisian life and finds work as a model, becoming quite successful in the process. Equally though, he develops an infatuation with Alice whom he follows and makes his feelings known to. She rebuffs him until she decides that… and here the film escapes me, I don’t claim to understand. They become a couple and for a time are happy and understand each other.
Binoche’s character has had a troubled journey to adulthood too and in these scenes the actresses subtle ability to convey myriad emotions barely contained, really comes to the fore. There is one scene, after Martin has declared his love for Alice where, simultaneously slightly angry, deeply confused and ultimately nervous beyond belief, she simply leaves, almost on the verge of tears. We next see her, procrastinating and alone on the Metro. She sees something and gets up.
Techine cuts to a close-up of her face as she gazes at an advertisement featuring Martin and says nothing. It’s all in her face. Through almost micro gestures she manages to convey her internal thought process brilliantly. Shortly afterwards she visits Martin and they make love. An odd term when applied to something as unreal as a film but within the context of Alice Et Martin you realise that, through its combination of subtlety, nuanced direction, editorial control and slow build up, story wise, Andre Techine has done just that.
Sex is normally treated awfully in films, resorting to explicit displays even in romantic contexts, but this is an exception. It manages to show the intimacy, both to the characters and from the external story perspective, and the joy of finding somebody special and the vulnerability of hoping, daring to dream that it will last and work out. This applies to the entire film, not just this scene. Whereas most films might leave it at that or ramp up the romantic claptrap, Alice Et Martin politely declines. Instead, like all logical things, it begins to bring its threads together. That off-screen trauma that I referred to…
The happy, not for long, couple go on holiday to Spain. There Alice tells Martin that she is pregnant. Martin is disturbed and becomes emotionally distant, almost overnight. In one scene Martin almost throttles Alice, after at first embracing her. This time, the camera focuses on his character and you see the same play out of thought processes on the face as I alluded to earlier, but the outcome is as already mentioned. It leaves you speechless, shocked, and this is the real genius of the film, not angry but wanting to understand why Martin has done such an awful, some would say unforgivable thing. Then it all comes out.
Following one of his other half sibling’s death, Martin and his father argued and, during an altercation, the young man pushed him away in anger. His father fell to his death and Martin fled, terrified at, well given the films previous ability to make you thin yourself into its structure, insert your thoughts here. I would say that anybody’s first interpretation would be correct; Martin feels responsible and guilty, not only for the death but for part of his part in his cold, distant relationship with his father. He feels unbearably sad that he will never be able to attempt to start again; we are witness to the moment when a man learns what death means and is simultaneously confronted by the possibility of new life, no wonder he is in psychological crisis.
Trying to be a man of principle, he wants to do something about this, but being a man in love, and therefore selfish, he wants to do something to protect the happiness he has with Alice. He self admits to a hospital for observation and Alice goes on a journey of her own. She visits Martins mother, played by Carmen Maura and gains some perspective on the situation. She also attempts, to no avail, to deliver a letter to from Martin to his stepmother.
In a final scene of coldness between what were once the closet of friends, Benjamin tells Alice that his remaining brother, rather than his step brother, will have to be first with him; political ambitions and the family name you see. Alice simply takes this with dignity and goes back home. Following Martin’s release from the hospital the couple walk, distance between them, to a nearby café. It is here that one of the greatest scenes in modern cinema occurs, an absolute master class in acting, reacting, direction and editing.
After the establishing shots there is silence. Alice tells Martin that she thinks that things will be alright and that she loves him. She then utters one of the most profound things that I have ever heard in life, let alone a film:
“We need to find the courage to be happy.”
Martins reactions are muted, both literally and figuratively, there is only the slightest change in his expression and almost imperceptibly you believe that he finds hope right there and then. Martin reaches out to Alice and touches her face. She closes her eyes and rests her head into his still tentative embrace, an image used on many international posters for the film. This is beyond beautiful; it attains a quality of utter transcendence. It is one of my favourite moments in cinema for the last twenty years, and gone within the blink of an eye; after just a moment, not an iota more, and a cut to a different angle,
Martin surrenders himself, literally runs to the police! My interpretation is that he knows that he has somebody that will love and wait for him, but to be worthy of that love, and the gift of a child, he must first become a man and take responsibility for his actions. Would it be too much to say that there is a joy, something of the freedom of being unburdened, in his rush headlong into the future but also yet more doubt?
The film doesn’t judge, it simply presents. Alice is next seen sat alone on a bench; sad, happy, but neither in grand proportion, she simply does not know what will happen next but takes a moment to drink it all in. This beautiful, exquisite, monumental, expert film ends with Martin explaining via narration and letters to Alice that he feels content with her in his life and that this is all he needs. He also asks for a jumper, which is typically male. You know that she will send him one.
Before this there is a brief scene of Binoche, playing a dignified, artistic, pregnant woman paying the bills; Alice wanders among the guests at a wedding providing music on her violin. She smiles at the guests; Binoche’s smile and face is the key to her whole career, at least in iconographic terms…
You hope that it works out for them, in the space left by the end of the story, but the film reflects it back by ending suddenly and modestly, as all of the greatest do; you might want Alice and Martin to be happy, but what do you want for yourself?
In the opinion of this viewer, Alice Et Martin is a flat out, little known, absolute masterpiece. It gave me something of the courage to be happy, made me understand people and art a little better, and keeps getting better each time that I see it. Binoche is supported by Alexis Loret, the great Mathieu Amalric and several others, plus all of the gifts that only a director as fine as Techine, criminally underrated in my view, can bring to such potentially melodramatic material as this.
In this quiet, gentle study of the steps that one must take to be a fully-fledged adult and attempt to find love, all of the modern human story is here. You should see it straight away! Bravo Techine, Binoche et al!