Juliette Binoche has the most haunted face in movies. And appropriately, it’s not easy to describe how this phenomenon works. She’s achingly beautiful, but so are many women who don’t bring to the screen anything near Binoche’s distinctive combination of pain, mystery, and appetite, evoking from the rest of us a response that is at once ethereal and visceral. Filmmakers tend to accentuate her face, framing her hugely, in bleak half-shadows or luminous light. In both cases, the effect is the same: you’re left pondering what it is that has brought this pale and lovely visage to such a state of unrest. Perhaps, you think, she’s remembering some dark passion, but you’re only seeing the aftereffects, never the moment itself. Or perhaps she’s roiling, caught up in a raw emotion at the very instant of that close-up. Then again, maybe she’s just distracted. Maybe she’s thinking about what’s on her grocery list.
Whatever’s on Juliette Binoche’s mind, gazing at that face can definitely get you thinking. Whether she’s nursing Jeremy Irons’ terrible need for control in Louis Malle ‘s Damage, Ralph Fiennes’ waning spirit in Minghella’s The English Patient, or her own survivor’s guilt in Krysztof Kieslowski’s Bleu, Binoche consistently conveys an eerie mix of rapture and anguish, desire and detachment. Sometimes it almost hurts to look at her, but she’s so compelling, you can’t look away either.
Reuniting with her Rendez-vous director Andre Techine for Alice and Martin, Binoche again plays an exquisitely troubled survivor Alice who devotes herself to rescuing her psychically wounded young lover, Martin (Alexis Loret). Her journey from one point to the other is a difficult one, and the film doesn’t tell you much about Alice at all. The plot (co-written by Techine, Gilles Taurand, and Oliver Assayas) is twisty and turny in the way that films can be when they don’t really care if you come to a sense of resolution or not. Sometimes this disregard for viewers can be provocative, sometimes it can be annoying. The spates of incoherence and macguffins in Alice and Martin are intriguing for a while, and then they slide into temporal gimmickry.
The most glaring omission is motivation or background for Alice. She and Martin circle round each other, but neither comes fully to light; rather, they punctuate each other’s stories, each disturbing for its own reasons. The movie opens on a young Martin (Jeremy Kreikenmayer), a ten-year-old boy sent off by his single mother Jeanine (Carmen Maura) to live in the city with his married father Victor (Pierre Maguelon). Martin’s new upper crusty family Victor, his wife Lucie (Marthe Villalonga), and Martin’s half-brothers Francois (Erik Kreikenmayer), Frederic (Jean-Pierre Lorit), and Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric) is quite less than happy to receive him. Understandably bereft and hoping to be sent back to his beauty shop owner mother, the boy feigns illness. When he learns of the deception, Victor calls Martin into his dark-wooded, foreboding office to admonish, “You have to tell the truth.” The father points out that Martin’s new situation is in fact to his advantage, that he is now afforded the chance to “broaden [his] horizons.” The boy looks appropriately mortified but takes at least part of the lesson to heart, then returns to his bedroom where he attempts to become honestly sick, standing naked before an open window in midwinter.
Cut forward several years, and the grown-up Martin is bamming through the front gate of Victor’s estate, pell-mell into the French countryside (which is apparently quite wild when a film demands it reflect a character’s inner turmoil). He spends some days in a state of apparent despair and anxiety, plunging into a river and sleeping fitfully during spooky nights. It’s clear early on that Martin is not a hardy sort, however: he steals eggs from the same farmer repeatedly, and so, is caught by the local authorities, who chastise him and inform his stepmother of his whereabouts. Tellingly, she has no interest in picking him up, and though her reasons will emerge, it is both the film’s strength and weakness that you have little interest in Martin’s erstwhile nuclear unit.
Still, as the title informs you, he must meet Alice. And so, Martin makes his way to Paris, where he locates Benjamin, grown up into a struggling actor who is sharing a small flat with her. You first see Alice practicing her violin, frown on her brow and resolve in her posture and, of course, that Binochean mystery playing across her face. Alice’s backstory remains enigmatic: all you learn about her is that she’s a very serious and not particularly successful musician, performing at small venues with a quartet, sometimes auditioning for solo gigs. And when Martin appears at her doorway (while Benjamin is away), she’s none too pleased. Though he’s quite beautiful, Martin is also annoyingly cryptic, even unsocialized. After a conversation or two, he asks why she doesn’t seem to like him. She tells him he’s immature, and Martin starts to pout.
Nonetheless, Martin more or less moves into the flat, and the three quickly develop a strange and intense friendship, cut short when Martin lands a lucrative high-fashion modeling contract and somehow by winsome gazing, more pouting, and some zinger-wheedling (“If I hadn’t met you, I wouldn’t exist!”) he convinces Alice to be “his.” Benjamin is hurt and a little jealous, though he had previously informed Martin that his relationship with Alice is “not sexual” (Benjamin identifies as gay, though he and Alice might have occasional sex… it’s hard to tell exactly what they do before Martin’s on the scene). Once Alice starts jetting about with Martin to gorgeous European photo-shoot locations (France’s Cahors region, Spain), and so basically moves out of the apartment, Benjamin drops from sight, until a confrontation about family history that comes much later in the film.
Until that point, however, Alice and Martin behave as if they are entranced with one another, spending dreamy nights together and walking through some montagey developing-romance scenes, including a few conversations, shot in delicate close-ups and accompanied by Philippe Sarde’s swooping soundtrack. During such moments, Binoche’s face does its evocative work, for instance, as Alice remembers her sister, dead at age 11, whom she both adored and envied. When she says, “Everyone treated her like an adult,” it might be a little clearer why Alice has fallen so hard for Martin, who is treated like an adult by his business associates, though he remains a child, emotionally stunted and fearful of intimacy.
Or again, she sees in her sister and in Martin a bit of herself, refracted in a way that the movie resists showing straight-up. The tear comes when Alice tells Martin that she is pregnant: Suddenly the burden of intimacy becomes too much, and he collapses into a kind of coma, which the doctors call the result of “psychological trauma.” While in hospital, Martin looks especially fragile and wan, while Alice takes on a determined and practical demeanor; when the couple vacations (or rather, takes a rest cure) on the Spanish coast, Martin swims for hours each night and refuses to speak with Alice, who becomes increasingly distraught. (What if he’s diseased in a way that might affect their child?) And so, from this point, Alice essentially takes over their life details and the narrative, trying to piece together the turmoil that incapacitates her lover and, for a while at least, the film.
It comes as no surprise that Martin’s suffering stems from his very fucked up family, whose nasty history Alice proceeds to uncover step by step, a process that is undoubtedly yucky for her, but not a little tedious for us. The stakes for her dedication remain either too obvious (her own maternal stuff) or too subtle (there’s something in her own past that’s behind Alice’s need to know but you’ll never understand it). Equally troubling, the grounds for Alice and Martin’s relationship are never really clear why does he want so desperately to possess her? why does she give up her own career to keep him company? Still, you might take Binoche on faith. More than an interlocking or even a very interesting puzzle, the film is, in the end, another occasion for you to work out your own relationship to Binoche, who remains, as ever, seductively distressed and distressingly seductive.