French director Andre Techine, who is probably best known here for Les Roseaux sauvages (1994), continues to make insightful psychological dramas that probe sensitive areas of family relationships. Alice et Martin follows on from Ma saison preferee (1993) as a more hard-edged exploration of the mental scars that accrue from unresolved family conflicts. The central character, Martin (Alexis Loret), is a disturbed young man who flees from his country home and seeks refuge with his half-brother, Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), a struggling gay actor who shares a Paris flat with Alice (Juliette Binoche). Before long, the handsome yet distraught Martin is hired as a fashion model and begins an affair with Alice. But the couple’s happiness is threatened by Martin’s deteriorating mental state, which causes him to retreat to an asylum.
The film has already suggested the source of Martin’s trauma in an opening sequence which reveals that, as a young boy, his mother (Carmen Maura) insisted that her illegitimate son should live with his real father. The boy’s instinctive fears about this arrangement prove well founded, for the father proves to be a tyrant whose iron rule has a malign influence on most of his children. The key event which led Martin to leave home and wander like a wounded animal in the countryside is revealed in flashback. In the present, Alice begins her own investigation into the reasons for Martin’s increasingly self-destructive behaviour, and this search reveals a secret the family wishes to keep buried.
The film’s jigsaw structure brings it close to the mystery thriller genre, but Techine’s main purpose is to capture what he describes as ‘the fears and reverberations’ that haunt his characters. Martin is an extreme case, but the film provides plenty of evidence that the other characters are also struggling with demons from the past. The very attractive yet edgy Alice is hiding in a sexless relationship with Benjamin before she responds to the deep need for love as revealed by Martin. Benjamin sees himself as the black sheep of the family because of his gayness and lack of career success. The complex and sometimes contradictory emotions stirred up by family ties are subtly revealed by Benjamin’s annoyance at Alice for digging up the past, even though he was another victim of his father’s disapproval.
Alice et Martin reveals all of Techine’s strengths as a director. He has made a mainstream movie with an ambitious structure and the courage to tackle difficult issues. He renews a fruitful collaboration with Juliette Binoche (they made Rendez-vous together in 1985), who now has star power but fortunately not the ego to unbalance the work of an auteur. He has also embraced the talents of writer-director Olivier Assayas (as co-scriptwriter) and Mathieu Amalric, who starred in Assayas’s Late August, Early September, a film whose intelligence and sharp observations are echoed in Alice et Martin. It should be added that Techine’s movie is a technical tour de force, with dazzling cinematography, razor-sharp editing and a terrific use of music.