'Alias Betty': Yet Another Belle Dame Sans Merci

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 8, 2002

It's generally frowned upon to make sweeping generalizations about a culture not one's own, but: What's up with the French these days?

First they sent us "The Piano Teacher," in which Isabelle Huppert played a musician who uses masochistic sex as a way to escape an oppressive mother. Then "Merci Pour le Chocolat" with – quelle surprise – Huppert again, this time as a bourgeois mother with a homicidal streak.

Now please welcome "Alias Betty," which as luck would have it does not star Huppert but features a role that seems to scream out for her signature brand of buttoned-down insanity. Here, Nicole Garcia does the honors as a woman with a blood disorder that makes her lash out violently at whoever happens to be nearby.

"Alias Betty" opens with a scene of Margot (Garcia) plunging a pair of scissors into her young daughter's hand; the movie then flashes forward, to a time when that daughter, Brigitte (Sandrine Kiberlain), has become a successful novelist and a mother in her own right (her nom de plume is Betty). Margot has come to visit Brigitte and her son in Paris when a terrible accident occurs, bringing Brigitte close to a breakdown herself and soon drawing her into her mother's irrational vortex.

Adapted from the Ruth Rendell novel "The Tree of Hands," "Alias Betty" tries to be an elliptical psychological study and a thriller, as more and more characters crisscross Betty's life. It succeeds as neither psycho-study nor twisty mystery.

None of the characters is terribly interesting or appealing, save for a 4-year-old boy Betty comes to befriend – but filmmaker Claude Miller's use of the youngster for emotional manipulation and narrative convenience is nothing short of shameless.

The good news might be that Huppert wasn't available for "Alias Betty," but the bad news is that it didn't stop France from exporting yet one more cold, pretentious, thoroughly dislikable study in sociopathy.

ALIAS BETTY (NR, 101 minutes) Contains some violence. in French with subtitles, at Visions Cinema.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company