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There are many ways to be a bad mother, and Alias Betty has only so much time to demonstrate them. That may be why writer-director Claude Miller hastily inserted the film’s first maternal outrage into the opening credit sequence: On a hurtling, old-style French train, a woman momentarily snaps and stabs her young daughter in the hand.
Some 30 years later, a glimpse of a scarred hand indicates that Betty (quietly intense Sandrine Kiberlain) is that girl, now grown into a commercially successful novelist who’s just returned to France from New York. The writer and her essentially fatherless 4-year-old son, Joseph (Arthur Setbon), arrive at the airport to pick up Betty’s mother, Margot (vividly played by actress-director Nicole Garcia), who’s still wild, willful, and exasperating. (An on-screen definition reveals that she has porphyria, the disease that dazed and confused George III.) Now living in Spain, Margot has traveled to Paris for medical tests (and to give her husband a respite). Betty—who’s discarded the name her mother gave her, Brigitte—doesn’t seem especially happy to see her.
Much happens rather quickly to many people in Alias Betty—which explains the movie’s French title, whose literal translation is “Betty Fisher and Other Stories.” The director took the whiplash plot twists from The Tree of Hands, a novel by Ruth Rendell, a British mystery writer whose work appeals to French filmmakers. (Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremonie also was derived from a Rendell book.) Under the cool eye of Miller, a former Truffaut assistant probably best-known in the United States for directing the Truffaut-scripted The Little Thief, the story becomes a celebration of a ruthless yet ultimately benign destiny. Nearly every one of the players does something very wrong, yet things work out for the best. Indeed, Alias Betty ends so auspiciously that it could almost qualify for an American remake—if only Miller had spent a little time giving his characters that cardinal Hollywood attribute: likability.
Because unexpected switches and intricate overlaps are the source of the film’s locomotion, it would be wrong to reveal much of the plot. in the Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge official synopsis, however, has already revealed two major developments: Just after Margot arrives, Joseph is accidentally injured and then dies. Stunned, Betty withdraws into a near-catatonic state. So Margot brings home a substitute, Jose (Alexis Chatrian), claiming that she’s baby-sitting for old friends. As Betty soon realizes, Margot has actually abducted Jose from a housing project that is geographically near but socially distant from Betty’s affluent neighborhood. Betty means to return the boy but finds it hard to part with him. It appears that the heedless Margot has, impossibly, done a good deed.
Jose’s arrival opens the story to another world, one inhabited by the boy’s mother, Carole (With a Friend Like Harry’s Mathilde Seigner, in a turnabout role), a rough-edged barmaid and sometime hooker who doesn’t much miss her son; Carole’s benevolent boyfriend, Francois (Luck Mervil), an unemployed Afro-Frenchman who becomes the focus of the police investigation into Jose’s disappearance; Carole’s pal Alex (Edouard Baer), a con man and gigolo on the verge of a big score; and Carole’s boss, Milo (Michael Abiteboul), who ultimately turns out not to be merely an observer of his employee’s turbulent life. Chilly Betty has fewer contacts, but she is befriended by Dr. Castang (Roschdy Zem), who tried to save Joseph, and badgered by Edouard (Stephane Freiss), Joseph’s biological father. Most of these people are entangled by the story’s final chapter, which teeters between knockabout farce and divine—well, directorial—retribution.
Miller depicts many near misses and fluke meetings—one character even has an encounter with a Ruth Rendell novel—that seem more like serendipity than the workings of an omnipotent fate. He also uses handheld cameras and dual-camera coverage of each scene, techniques designed to create an impression of spontaneity. Yet Alias Betty is not exactly a romp. The movie takes its tone from its opening shocker and Betty’s repressed demeanor, and Bach and Nick Drake are prominent on the mostly lamentatory soundtrack. Rendered with detachment rather than glee, the story is fascinating without being especially involving. Perhaps it’s a mark of the film’s success that it’s unclear if the resolution is meant to be providential or perverse.
A sultry bisexual jewel thief double-crosses her thuggish partners and escapes into her doppelganger’s identity, only to risk being exposed by a paparazzo’s snapshot. That summary of Femme Fatale’s plot may not suggest that it’s going to be a smart movie, but it does seem to promise much flash and flesh. So the real shocker of this Brian De Palma softball is not that star Rebecca Romijn-Stamos does a striptease that ends with her putting her bra back on, but that the entire affair is tepid and slack.
Most of the film transpires in Paris, but it’s not the contemporary, multiethnic Paris of Alias Betty, or even of The Truth About Charlie. In some ways more movie-movie than Demme’s flick, Femme Fatale opens with a clip from Double Indemnity and stages its big heist at the Cannes Film Festival, where Regis Wargnier’s 1999 East-West has its premiere while Laure (model/something-of-an-actress Romijn-Stamos) makes out with Veronica (model/even-less-of-an-actress Rie Rasmussen) in a ladies’-room stall the size of a Manhattan apartment. Veronica is wearing a jewel-encrusted tendril, barely covering her nipples, that looks like something designed for a harem scene in a never-made Conan the Barbarian sequel.
Somehow, Laure gets the jewels and splits, jilting partners in crime Black Tie (Lumumba star Eriq Ebouaney) and Racine (Edouard Montoute). They track Laure to Paris, where she happens upon the identity of look-alike Lily. In that guise, the sexy thief hops a plane to the United States, meeting rich-software-magnate-turned-Washington-foreign-policy-wonk Bruce Hewitt Watts (Peter Coyote). Seven years later, she returns to Paris as the wife of new U.S. Ambassador Watts, only to be captured on film by poetic semiretired photog Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas). Published in a French scandal sheet, Nicolas’ picture puts Black Tie and Racine back on Laure/Lily’s trail, so she plans an elaborate con to get the money to flee again.
Like the Paris-smitten The Truth About Charlie and The Rules of Attraction, Femme Fatale employs such retro-hip techniques as split screens and handheld camera. Yet De Palma and longtime editor Bill Pankow cut the film as if neither of them had ever seen Breathless, let alone MTV; the action usually seems a few beats too slow. Recurrences of the same locations—a venerable church, a futuristic airport hotel—certain items of clothing, and a few supporting characters suggest a sort of dream logic, which combined with the film’s staginess recalls such Alain Resnais transition pieces as Providence. De Palma doesn’t conjure anything like the mood of Resnais’ most beguilingly mysterious work, however, and
Romijn-Stamos shimmies more convincingly than she speaks. Wisely, the writer-director kept dialogue to a minimum and drenched the proceedings in music—credited to Ryuichi Sakamoto, although the principal motif is derived from Ravel’s Bolero—but he couldn’t resist giving Laure one big speech. “I’m a bad girl,” she begins, and there is indeed something bad about her lines. Alas, Femme Fatale’s principal accomplishment is to demonstrate that bad-girlishness can be kind of boring. CP