Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sandrine Kiberlain, Nicole Garcia, Mathilde Seigner, Luck Mervil, Edouard Baer
Written by: Claude Miller, based on the novel by Ruth Rendell
Directed by: Claude Miller
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 09/13/2002

Alias Betty (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Betty' Stew

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While Pulp Fiction began with a printed dictionary definition of pulp, Claude Miller's Alias Betty, which opens today at the Lumiere, begins with a written dictionary definition of "porphyry," a blood imbalance that results in irritation and violence. The film then cuts to a woman and a young girl riding on a train, and we immediately begin to worry over which of them has the blood imbalance, and what will happen to the other one.

It's only a flashback, however. The little girl, Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain), is now grown with a son of her own -- and a nasty scar on her hand (the origin of which is demonstrated in the flashback). She's also a successful author, having penned a best seller about her years spent in New York. As the film unfolds, Betty's mother Margot (Nicole Garcia) arrives for an extended visit. She wants to spend some time having fun with her daughter, but the little boy, Joseph (Arthur Setbon), takes up most of Betty's attention.

Miller (The Accompanist) refuses to let the initial worrisome, off-kilter feeling subside for long. Shut in his room for a nap, Joseph becomes interested in a bird on the windowsill and falls to his death (or near-death; he dies later in the hospital).

The Pulp Fiction parallel comes back into play as Miller introduces us to several additional characters, with their own little title cards, who seem unconnected to Margot and Betty. A tarty barmaid, Carole (Mathilde Seigner), lives with an unemployed but good-hearted black laborer, Francois (Luck Mervil), who takes care of Carole's son Jose (Alexis Chatrian). Carole likes to hang around with a small-time swindler, Alex (Edouard Baer), who has shacked up with a rich woman, and who just might be Jose's real father.

Miller really sets the story into play when, out of the blue, Margot kidnaps little Jose and presents him to Betty as a child in need of a baby sitter. Betty soon figures out that the child is a kidnap victim, but can't muster the strength to give him back. Meanwhile, the police blame Francois for the kidnapping, Francois blames Alex, Alex tries to set up a scheme involving the rich woman's house, and Carole begins to enjoy life without apron strings.

Though the film keeps a relatively straight face throughout, and isn't afraid to take on topics such as child abuse, the final showdown comes across like a French drawing room comedy, with all the key players rushing around an airport barely missing each other. The shift in tone might feel off-putting or out of place, until you realize that Miller actually has injected a sense of absurdity throughout the film.

Margot is perhaps the source of most of it; while Betty is down for the count after her son's death, Margot doesn't bother to tell anyone about the tragedy -- not even her own husband, the boy's grandfather. Her selfish helplessness on one end and her ability to kidnap a child on the other make her the film's soft fabric to Betty's cold, hard anchor. Betty remains the most level-headed, even rationalizing logically the decision to keep a child who isn't hers.

Miller somehow makes all this irrational behavior -- Margot's and just about everyone else's -- look perfectly sane up until the absurd ending, which then reflects a new light back upon the rest of the movie. He, thus, gives us the option to either bite our nails or laugh at his story.

Credit the director's skill for this careful craftsmanship. It says a lot about a filmmaker when he can be wacky without clobbering the audience over the head and still maintain a sense of urgency and suspense. That's great storytelling. Miller makes you revisit what you've seen and gives you something to take home.

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