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'Alias Betty': Detached, Chilly and Thought-Provoking

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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 8, 2002

THE LINES of destiny run parallel before converging in "Alias Betty," Claude Miller's watchable adaptation of the Ruth Rendell book "The Tree of Hands."

But the French movie is a chessboard of a thing – it's about the movements of the pawns, not the pawns themselves. And that makes for interesting, rather than emotionally compelling viewing.

Although, make no mistake, the beginning cannot be accused of lacking intense emotion. A devastating tragedy starts this dramatic board game in the first place.

Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain), a successful novelist and single mother living in Paris, is at home with her 4-year-old son, Joseph (Arthur Setbon), and her eccentric mother, Margot (Nicole Garcia), who suffers from an unusual psychological condition that causes outbreaks of impulsive violence.

Something awful happens and Betty finds herself waiting in the emergency room hoping against hope. Alas, her worst fears come to pass and Betty loses a son forever. Or does she? When she returns home, Margot has a surprise for her: another cute 4-year-old (Alexis Chatrian), whose real name is Jose – close enough, as far as Margot's concerned.

Already used to strange behavior from her mother (in the opening scene, the younger Betty suffers a physical assault with scissors by her mother), Betty is fairly calm about getting to the bottom of this dilemma. She even maintains composure when she learns this child has been reported missing in the media.

Little by little, Betty likes Jose staying right where he is: at home with her. There are contributing factors. Jose has marks of abuse on his body. And his mother, Carole (Mathilde Seigner), it turns out, is a hooker who doesn't seem unduly alarmed by the child's disappearance.

And let the lines of coincidence, the unfolding of that chess game, begin. The police badger Carole's boyfriend Francois (Luck Mervil), who has no idea what happened to Jose. Francois, in turn, suspects a hustler-forger named Alex (Edouard Baer) is not only Jose's biological father, but possibly the kidnapper.

Meanwhile Alex and Carole conspire to rip off an old lady of her mansion by selling it when she goes out of town. And Betty is forced to consider lying about the boy to her inquisitive ex-husband (Stephane Freiss) and a doctor (Roschdy Zem) with whom she's rapidly becoming involved.

There's more. And by the end, there will be a grand resolution, at an airport, that suggests the work of a benevolent force who likes clean and tidy resolutions.

Miller, who was once Francois Truffaut's assistant, and who made "Camille," "Under Suspicion" and "The Accompanist," has a sure hand when it comes to images. The opening sequence, centered around Joseph's tragedy, shows us a sad incident with restrained, poetic precision. In fact, he follows all the action with this aesthetic detachment. Betty's attitude toward her mother's behavior, and this kidnapping, is remarkably free of hysterics. And virtually everyone else is involved in some sort of deception, scam, thievery, almost as a matter of course. This is what life's about, it seems. And it forces us to reconsider every character: Are the bad so very bad? What is normal behavior, anyway? If this movie leaves you cool, it also leaves you intriguingly contemplative.

ALIAS BETTY (Unrated, 101 minutes) Contains obscenity, nudity, sexual situations and some violence. In French with subtitles. At Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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