An Emotional French Model and the Woman Who Loves Him

André Téchiné’s Alice and Martin , from a screenplay by Mr. Téchiné and Gilles Taurand, tells a complex, convoluted love story with the lyrical force and dysfunctional frenzy that have been Mr. Téchiné’s trademarks for over a quarter of a century. Unfortunately, he has never achieved the automatic cult status of his nouvelle vague predecessors of the 60′s and early 70′s, and, consequently, few of his films have achieved wide distribution in America. Of the ones I have seen, Alice and Martin is clearly among the most artistically accomplished and emotionally expressive.

Martin (Alexis Loret) is the central character in the narrative inasmuch as we follow him from his childhood, first with his single mother, Jeanine(Carmen Maura).Then, for some unexplained reason, she turns him over to his hitherto absent father, Victor (Pierre Maguelon), who is respectably married to Lucie (Marthe Villalonga) and has three sons, among whom Martin is brought up as a half-brother. This part of the film is sketchy in the extreme, and seems unduly tentative until we realize near the end that we are being set up for a traumatic Oedipal revelation that will unravel a behavioral mystery.

All we see on the screen, however, is a grown-up Martin fleeing from his father’s provincial estate to Paris, where he calls upon his gay half-brother, Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), an unsuccessful actor who is the black sheep of the family. As fellow outcasts, Martin and Benjamin have bonded more closely with each other than with the rest of the family. Martin meets Benjamin’s platonic roommate, Alice (Juliette Binoche), even before he links up with Benjamin. Alice is a repressed violinist who plays with a motley group of small-time musicians at arty concerts and the occasional wedding. Alice has little confidence in her talents as a soloist, and she is at first very cold toward the younger Martin, whose casual good looks stamp him in her mind as a self-adoring narcissist. And sure enough, an eagle-eyed female agent spots him in a restaurant and recruits him as a male model.

For his part, Martin becomes obsessed with Alice, even though she and Benjamin are more sophisticated and artistic than he is. Benjamin is at first amused by Martin’s gauche vulnerability, but he becomes jealous of Martin’s immediate success as a model. Even more, he dreads the prospect of Alice leaving their cozy (if sexless) nest to go off with the now-solvent Martin. Gay texts and subtexts have often figured in Mr. Téchiné’s bisexual universe. But there is no wavering in Martin’s heterosexual obsession with Alice, despite his traditionally compromising profession.

Yet when Alice tells Martin that she is pregnant, he goes into a coma that is the precursor to an emotionally disabling depression. Suddenly their roles are reversed. Alice, who had very reluctantly submitted to Martin’s aggressive pursuit in the beginning, now plunges into Martin’s troubled past to rescue him from the demons that are destroying him. She invades the sanctuaries of Martin’s childhood family traumas and finds the key to restoring and preserving his sanity.

Filmed on location in France (Paris and the southwest Cahors region) and Spain (Granada), where Martin’s climactic breakdown occurs, Alice and Martin is enriched by its landscapes and cityscapes. In her character’s quest for her lover’s salvation, Ms. Binoche seizes the opportunity Mr. Téchiné has given her with an astonishingly adventurous role to enthrall us in all her womanly glory. Alice and Martin is not to be missed, particularly in this endless lull of summer.

Who Are These X-Men?

Bryan Singer’s X-Men , from a screenplay by David Hayter, based on a story by Tom DeSanto and Mr. Singer, is derived from a comic book originated in 1963 by Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee with a “message” of tolerance toward mutants. In the year 2000, I found myself clueless in the cavernous depths of the Ziegfield Theater, surrounded by what looked and sounded like an army of X-Men followers. Most cheered at the end, but I was left feeling at once isolated and alienated from all the surging knowledgeability vibrating around me. I am neither proud nor ashamed to admit that I had never even heard of X-Men in any context until the advance buzz for the movie intruded on my professional consciousness a couple of months ago. Such reportedly legendary creatures as Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, Magneto, Sabretooth, Mystique and Toad burst upon the screen with no preconceptions on my part.

To my untutored eyes, the gadgetry and wizardry involved in X-Men seemed baroque, if not rococo, for the genre. And for a kid-oriented enterprise like this, there were two oddly patriarchal presences incarnated in the benevolent Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the malevolent Magneto (Ian McKellen).

It wasn’t hard to follow the plot, such as it was, but I soon became impatient with the formulaic indestructibility of the various X-Men. One minute all hell breaks loose, but after the smoke and fog have cleared, the good guys and gals are either still standing or in the process of resurrection. The only non-radiated human being that gets any attention is Bruce Davison’s Joe McCarthy-like Senator Robert Kelly, who wants to pass a law registering all mutants to determine how great a threat they pose to the country.

What is somewhat original in X-Men , besides the virtually equal time given to female mutants, is the confinement of the final struggle for the soul of humankind to two conflicting factions within the mutants themselves. Though I was never bored or offended, neither was I moved, amused or excited. There was no pain, no loss, no feeling, no wit, no humor and not really any charisma. Also, the semi-futurist setting struck me as too much ado about too little and too few for the apocalyptic grandiosity of the project.

In the end, the combatants in X-Men come across as ritualized figures in a pinball machine.

Fassbinder’s First Play, Revisited

François Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks , based on the first play ever written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, emerges as a fascinating meditation by a blithely gay French filmmaker on a play by a tortuously gay German filmmaker of an earlier period. Mr. Ozon is leaping into the breach to give us adult romances at a time when too much of the mainstream industry is preoccupied with the tastes of adolescent males.

The movie begins with one of the most articulate and universally accessible seduction dialogues in all of cinema, and proceeds by ironic increments to a climactic explosion of disillusion. Ultimately it is a wise, scintillating and darkly funny contemplation of the vagaries of all couplings, straight or gay. Although Auden has stated that married couples are more interesting and mysterious than unmarried couples, Ozon and Fassbinder could well respond that all couples face the same debilitating problems of duration and, with them, the inevitable disequilibrium of desire.

Mr. Ozon deserves credit for recognizing Fassbinder’s genius in depicting power in relationships in this play, written when he was 19. Ozon is aided in no small measure by the intuitively stylized ultra-Fassbinder performances of Bernard Giraudeau as Leopold, the insurance salesman and master seducer of men and women; his sensitive lover and victim, Franz, played by Malik Zidi; and the two masochistic female participants in the bisexual charade, Anna (Ludivine Sagnier) and Vera (Anna Thomson).

One may argue–and at least one critic already has–about how much the film reflects both Mr. Ozon’s and the late Mr. Fassbinder’s tastes and styles. In an interview, Mr. Ozon has suggested that he wished to remain faithful to the period–the 70′s–and the ethnicity–German rather than French–of the Fassbinder original and such later, explicitly gay Fassbinder films as Fox and His Friends (1975) and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Mr. Ozon acknowledges also the influence of Alain Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking (1993) on his ultra-theatrical approach to Water Drops on Burning Rocks, with its blackouts and act announcements.

Fortunately, the result of all this cultural cross-fertilization is superb.