A mother’s love, that endless font of adoration—who ever really survives it? The question lies at the heart of Alias Betty, the latest film by veteran French director Claude Miller. Adapted from the novel The Tree of Hands by British crime writer Ruth Rendell, this Chabrolian thriller unfolds in the Parisian suburbs, both the grandes banlieues where the bourgeoisie reside and the housing projects of the poor. Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain), a bestselling novelist and single parent of four-year-old Joseph, has just moved into a new home when her own mother arrives for a visit. Margot (Nicole Garcia) has come to Paris for medical testing; she suffers from nervousness and fits of aggression throughout Betty’s childhood and a frightful narcissism that continues to this day.
But when Joseph dies in an accident, Margot devises an insane solution to break through Betty’s deadly torpor. She plucks a small boy from the projects and brings him home as a substitute. The boy’s mother, Carole (Mathilde Seigner), a sexy barmaid with a vicious temper, has neglected and abused him. When Betty discovers his bruises, she becomes unwilling to return him, and the complot thickens.
Miller is known as a gifted director of actresses, and the leading ladies here do not disappoint. Betty, Margot, and Carole may represent radically different styles of motherhood, but they’re also sympathetic (even if batty or violent) and marvelously vivid. Infusing Rendell’s intrigue with warmth and humor, Miller makes the film’s sometimes mechanical and giddy narrative into something grander—a meditation on maternity as a form of inspired madness.
The ravages of a more carnal and intellectual passion are on display in Children of the Century, French director Diane Kurys’s adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s memoir about his love affair with George Sand, femme de scandale and novelist. Sand, whose afterlife in the movies has often focused on her subsequent (but equally ill-fated) relationship with Chopin, met Musset in 1833. Twenty-nine years old and a mother of two, she had already left her provincial baron of a husband, moved to Paris, and published Indiana and Lélia, novels whose critical view of married life—along with her habit of wearing men’s clothes in public—sealed her notoriety. Musset, a poet and playwright six years her junior, was the leader of a band of dissolute and druggy young literati.
Their tumultuous liaison, which included a disastrous voyage to Italy, lasted (on and off) less than two years, but it gave rise to a small flock of books and plays—even other people wrote memoirs about it. By focusing on Musset’s version, Kurys makes herself his unwitting partner. Resplendent in a pink waistcoat designed by Christian Lacroix, Benoît Magimel’s young dandy—by turns simpering, devoted, crazed, and incendiary—emerges as the more defined character. Juliette Binoche’s Sand is vivacious, but it’s hard to sense that powerhouse of 19th-century prose behind her childlike smile. Kurys’s script suffers from clichés (“you destroy those you love”) and from the staccato rhythm of real-life romance. It does best when it leaves behind hothouse literary discussions and closes in on these two legendary behemoths, battling for sexual supremacy.