DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
ALIAS BETTY (Betty Fisher et autres histoires) (director/writer: Claude Miller; screenwriter: based on novel The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell; cinematographer: Christophe Pollock; editor: Véronique Lange; music: François Dompierre; cast: Sandrine Kiberlain (Brigitte/Betty Fisher), Nicole Garcia (Margot Fisher), Mathilde Seigner (Carole Novacki), Luck Mervil (François), Édouard Baer (Alex), Stéphane Freiss (Edouard), Roschdy Zem (Dr. Jerome Castang), (Joseph Fisher), Michaël Abiteboul (Jose Novacki), Yves Verhoeven (Martinaud); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Annie Miller/Yves Marmion; Wellspring Media; 2001-Canada/France-in French, with English subtitles)

 
"A captivating story."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The part thriller and black comedy Alias Betty opens with a nerve-wracking flashback of a train trip taken by a woman and her daughter. The woman attacks the girl with a pair of scissors because she suffers from porphyry, an ailment caused by a blood imbalance that results in selfish and violent behavior. We soon learn that woman is Margot Fisher (Nicole Garcia) and the scarred girl is her daughter Brigitte (Sandrine Kiberlain). Margot has been living in Malaga, Spain, but has returned to France to undergo medical tests and also to visit her now estranged adult daughter. Brigitte had lived in New York City for three years and had an affair for three months to a struggling American poet and journalist, but in that time period had written a best-seller which gave her world-wide fame. The money from the book enables her to buy a fancy house in the Paris suburb of Vaucressen. She has become a recluse and now calls herself Betty, the name she used as an author, and is trying to distance herself from her painful childhood memories. Betty pours all her love into her 4-year-old, Joseph, the child from that brief fling. On Margot's first day of the unwanted visit, Joseph climbs out of his bedroom window when curious about a bird on the ledge and accidentally falls to his death. The self-absorbed nutty Margot, who really shows no concern about the dead child, senses how despondent Betty is about the loss, so she kidnaps a child that resembles her lost son as a substitute. Jose Novacki is the neglected son of a whore, Carole Novacki (Mathilde Seigner), now working as a bar waitress and living in the slum projects. Carole tries to escape from her poverty by seeking pleasure, and hoping to eventually land a rich guy who will support her in style.

Carole has no idea who Jose's father is, because the week he was conceived she could have slept with as many as nine men. She's been living for the last two months with her jealous French-African lover, François (Luck Mervil), someone who lusts after her and burns inside when she flirts with other men. The gentle François can at times show his violent side, and has a petty criminal record for selling grass. The unemployed laborer is pressed for money, but thinks his lot in life has improved because he has just gotten work. But the police now hound him and consider him as their main suspect. François is particularly perturbed by Carole's ex-boyfriend Alex (Édouard Baer), a small-time hustler and forger of passports, who is in the midst of working a real-estate scheme on the elderly lady he's been a gigolo to.  Alex happens to visit Carole at the wrong time, and François mistakes him for the kidnapper. When the police fail to arrest Alex after François anonymously called in the tip that Alex is the father of the child and snatched the kid, François plans to take matters into his own hands in the hopes of clearing his name.

The story of Betty and Carole are intertwined. The film is riveting when its focus is on the three mothers. But the film breaks down when it loads up on too many elaborate contrivances and coincidences to fuel the story further than it needs to go, and it disappoints by the tidy way things were finally resolved. 

Veteran writer-director Claude Miller, a protégé of Francois Truffaut, tells for the most part a captivating story that moves through the worlds of the upper and lower classes and into the racial divides. It's a film adapted from Ruth Rendell's suspenseful novel Tree of Hands.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

Miller is best when letting the film's more interesting eccentrics, Margot and Alex, run freely on their own steam. These flawed personalities, both capable of great mischief are, nevertheless, very human and give the film its edgy tone. Betty is convincing as someone who should know better about keeping a stolen child, but her maternal instincts take over and she becomes concerned that he will also be raised by a rotten mother. Betty decides to do things her way to keep the child despite the embittered Eduoard suddenly showing up and figuring out her child is the kidnapped one pictured on TV. Eduoard slyly works out an ingeniously amoral scheme for Betty to eventually get the child by paying off the real mother, but something unexpected happens to thwart that diabolical scheme. Sandrine Kiberlain provides the film with the heart it needs by her sensitive performance.

REVIEWED ON 4/4/2003     GRADE: B -

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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