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Alias Betty

by Shari L. Rosenblum

The opening of Claude Miller's Alias Betty (Betty Fisher at autres histoires) -- a moving train, the credits passing as views from the window, a loving daughter, a waking mother, a pair of scissors and a scream -- interspersed, as it were, with a dictionary definition of porphyria (the madness of King George) -- sets up the audience for a familiar sort of suspense-driven thriller: a flickering black and white meditation on the temptations of motherhood and the fragility of children. But there is nothing familiar about the film that follows, where nine lives intersect, and child abuse and kidnapping, racism and classism, scams and murders, gigolos and whores, absent and multiple fathers, and the faces of motherhood are all woven together toward an unerring center in a multi-textured fret of circumstance and coincidence.

The film's second scene -- years after its first -- takes us from the train to the plane: time has moved on. The eponymous Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain) -- the young girl now grown -- a fragile-looking woman, still visibly scarred, both inside and out, stands with her own young son, Joseph (Arthur Setbon), in tow, awaiting her mother's arrival. Margot (Nicole Garcia) comes on the scene with an energy burst of anxiousness and egocentrism, the force of her personality putting her daughter's awkwardness and glassy-stare resignation into relief. The air is heavy: we anticipate dread. It makes us wait.

It soon becomes clear that Margot does not get Betty's choices: her location (far outside of Paris), her house (not fancy), her bestselling novel (unread), her name (Margot had named her Brigitte, after Bardot), her divorce (from Edouard in New York), and most of all her desire to be a mother, to have a child (Margot reminds her that she never wanted children; Betty answers simply, seethingly, I know.)

In this last, Margot is more sister to Carole (Mathilde Seigner), a shoplifting barmaid from the other side of the tracks, with a taste for drugs and sleazy men, who'd just as soon sell her soul as her body (although a limp that she bears as a result of her own childhood traumas apparently prevents her from being a proper prostitute). Where Betty's house is large and stark, Carole lives in a crowded apartment with her son Jose (Alexis Chatrian), father undeclared, and François (Luc Mervil), her Franco-African lover. She is committed to neither of them.

And then fate intervenes. An open window, a bird, and the death of one child; a distraught mother and the kidnapping of another -- Jose and Joseph, Joseph and Jose, twin sons of different worlds and the centerpieces of an almost balletic contemplation on the commitment of motherhood, the essence of child, the absence of father and the possibility of escape. Is motherhood redemptive? Is the maternal instinct the road to salvation? It's a daring inquiry at a volatile moment in our social consciousness, and Miller's treatment is decidedly unsentimental.

If Alias Betty mixes in a delicious smattering of thwarted lovers,
hapless scammers, and overdiligent police to lighten its tone, it still manages to touch on tender spots and tough issues -- the interchangeability of children, of mothers -- careless fathers, returning fathers, potential fathers, mistaken fathers, would-be fathers, angry fathers -- and to turn its plaited plotline into a profound provocation.

Miller's screenplay (he wrote as well as directed), based on the Ruth Rendell novel, The Tree of Hands, plies difficult themes into a shamelessly playful puzzle of interlocking parts. And it works like a marvel. The acting is sublime, even if certain motivations are unclear, and certain others unfathomable. And the resolution is at once traditional and uncoventional - 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. The coincidences build, repeat, and come around again from the other side, artless and magnificent.

The viewer gladly sacrifices the ploddingly plausible for the realized potential of pure pleasure . . .and afterwards, still smiling, still contemplates the pain.

©2002 Shari L. Rosenblum