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Alice and Martin (Andre Techine, 1998)
Andre Techine’s Alice and Martin begins with a jarring ten-year leap, taking us from a young boy’s attempt to make himself sick by opening his bedroom window at night to his later aborted suicide attempt. Throughout the film, this psychoanalytical approach to character, where each of a character’s behaviors has a justifiable explanation, is observable. In these early scenes where Martin (Alexis Loret) the young boy, or young man, is our ardent focus, the visual splendor that surrounds him, be it a swirling snowstorm on a black night or a field of marvelously green grass, is decidedly cut off from his interior life. Techine’s film is initially about the way that we create shells around ourselves as a means of self-definition. The opening trauma, in which Martin’s true identity, and encroaching adulthood, is foisted upon him sets a pattern of behavior in which young Martin meets emotional crises with complete avoidance, be it physical or mental.
When Martin ends his transient period and settles in Paris, the film introduces two less extreme characters that share his stunted, transitory level of emotional maturity. In an early encounter, during which Martin is caught following his flat mate Alice (Juliette Binoche), he flees, claiming he “felt dumb”. She pegs him as “immature”, but is revealed to be in a quasi-paternal, mostly platonic relationship with Benjamin, Martin’s stepbrother, that seems to fill a void from her own childhood. Alice and Martin is a particularly prescriptive coming of age movie, presenting these characters, each in a transitory phase in life, before it deconstructs them and explains where they went wrong. In the film’s first hour, Techine does a superb job of capturing their attitudes and routines. Attracted to risky sex and resigned to day jobs while they wait for their breaks, these characters are obviously symbolic of youth, yet they’re still believable. Loret’s performance as Martin must get much of the credit for this. With his feral, impulsive presence, he reminds the audience in every scene that this film is concerned with the most basic elements of the characters’ psychological make-ups. His childish craving for instant gratification when he pursues Alice is pathetic yet endearing, and his later possessive behavior feels like an extension of it. Martin’s emotions might exist on a surface level when compared to Benjamin and Alice, but clearly each of them shares similar unmistakable hang-ups. For example, when Benjamin’s insecure jealousy of Alice and Martin rears its head, he immediately begins groping an ex-boyfriend, using him as a surrogate much as Alice and Martin use one another.
As a romantic relationship between Alice and Martin begins to flourish, Techine begins to move into genuinely exciting territory, as the focus of his film seems to shift from the way that we construct emotional barriers around ourselves to avoid pain (obvious from the first scene, which shows a young Martin trying to avoid knowledge of his father) to the way that once we find someone to love we simply expand our barriers to fit two people. As the action shifts to Spain, the movie takes on a literal hothouse environment, putting the two in a position where their distractions are removed and their demons must be faced. Until this point, the characters in the film are conceptual enough that their predicaments feel like a universal part of the maturation process. Unfortunately, at the end of the Spain sequence, Techine reveals his ultimate narrative plan, grounding the movie in unnecessary specificity.
At this point Alice and Martin hurls into a flashback that details Martin’s motivations with so many facts that the concerns of the movie becomes inescapably Oedipal, and inherently less interesting. Because the Martin seemed to function symbolically in the first half of the film, the attempt to round him out with a comprehensive back-story feels misguided. The ultimate source of his state is entirely underwhelming and harmfully reductive. The revelation is the stuff of scriptwriting, whereas the first hour of the film seemed to offer genuine insight into the way we live our lives. It becomes obvious that having no particular explanation would have been preferable to the one we’re given, but if that approach was taken, then the film would have had to offer a better resolution to the problem of the youths’ mindset than the “love heals all wounds” mush that it finds. Compounding the problem is that in comparison to Martin, Binoche’s character is sketchily drawn. Although she gives an admirable, unshowy performance, her role is underwritten, with the script frequently using her as the engine that propels the plot. Despite the stated loss of her sister, the key moment in the film, when she falls for Martin, feels false. Missteps like that take a large toll on the overall impact that the movie has, and by the end of Alice and Martin, such distractions have largely obscured its larger message of personal responsibility.