For at least an hour, Andre Téchiné’s latest psychological melodrama, Alice and Martin, gains momentum through disorientation. The film opens with 10-year-old Martin being dispatched by his hairdresser mother (Carmen Maura) to live with his wealthy, despotic father. The boy’s unhappiness in his new environment instantly established, Téchiné makes an abrupt 10-year leap to the grown Martin (Alexis Loret) fleeing the family compound, and follows this with a wordless passage of the young fugitive staggering across the countryside in a daze (he tries to drown himself, devours raw eggs stolen from a chicken coop, stares transfixed as birds rip into a rotting deer carcass). And then, just as suddenly, Martin shows up in Paris, at the doorstep of his gay half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric) and his neurotic violinist roommate Alice (Juliette Binoche).
Alice and Martin do eventually get together, and Téchiné sketches the arc of their courtship in restless, anxious ellipses—and with no small measure of dry humor. The absurdly beautiful Martin finds work as a fashion model and takes to stalking Alice, who’s perplexed by his clumsy, puppyish attentions—and by his recent elevation to public sex object. (In one droll scene, the “face of Lancôme” looks up in wonder at a series of Martin’s cologne ads flashing by her on the Metro.) The lurching narrative generates an unsettling rhythm, forcing a closer examination of the obscure motivations and complex desires at work. Needless to say, Martin’s dark secret, the trauma that so discombobulated him in the first place, returns to haunt him, and the film. Téchiné provides an extended flashback to the circumstances surrounding the death of Martin’s father, then shifts the focus to Alice’s attempts to comprehend and finally come to terms with her lover’s consuming guilt and self-hatred.
The clunkily inserted flashback is a questionable strategy, but Alice and Martin, like much recent Téchiné, thrives on vivid incidentals and telling details. Even as the plot crescendos to a soap-operatic pitch, the turbulence never feels less than organic or spontaneous—not least because of Téchiné’s tropistic attraction to big, messy emotions and because his characters are so fully and compassionately drawn. Here it’s not just the titular relationship but also the one between Alice and Benjamin that resonates—a believable symbiotic friendship between a straight woman and a gay man, rendered not as sitcom premise or Vanity Fair cover story, without recourse to stereotypes and with a good deal of affection.
Téchiné, who gave Binoche her first leading role in Rendez-Vous, could eventually do for the star what he’s done for the middle-aged Catherine Deneuve—a liberating glamour bypass. Loret gives his freak-outs an agonized opacity, and the quicksilver Amalric turns the most random acts into comic grace notes—manically sucking face on a dance floor, executing a petulant dive into shallow waters after a poolside squabble (neatly echoing Bill Murray’s lugubrious plunge in Rushmore). Alice and Martin‘s outsize proportions can seem daunting or corny, but the shiny melodramatic surface is misleading. Téchiné, typically honest and generous, always allows the churning emotional undercurrents to take over.