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Home Cooking: Mathilde Seigner and Luck Mervil scrape by in the projects of 'Alias Betty'.

Mad Mom

'Alias Betty' is a primer on how to lose the Mother of the Year award

By Richard von Busack

HERE'S Alias Betty, a movie in which a porphyria case is a villain. A few years back, a scientist noted that porphyria sufferers exhibited symptoms such as light sensitivity, garlicky breath, pale skins and tendency to attack without warning. This scientist proposed the following hypothesis: Might these symptoms have created the myth of vampirism? After an angry lobby of blameless porphyriacs was done with him, he probably wished he'd been attacked by vampires instead.

Alias Betty, based on Ruth Rendell's 1985 novel, The Tree of Hands, begins with a title card explaining that porphyria is a disease that can sometimes trigger madness. What we see next is something like a primal act: a porphyria-suffering woman smiling at her young daughter--suddenly, mania strikes. Twenty years later, the daughter, Brigitte, called Betty (the storky Sandrine Kiberlain), still bears the scar of the assault. She's uneasily greeting her mother at the airport. Though the mother, Margot (the amazing Nicole Garcia), is in unsteady remission, she hasn't given up stabbing. Since Margot's retired, she has more time to correct her daughter, reminding Betty that writing a bestseller is no substitute for having a steady man and a television set. Betty, having fled the man in her life, is now single-parenting a toddler in a very posh suburban house.

The malignant mom is still around when Betty loses her son to a serious accident. Since Betty is too distraught to eat or speak, Margot decides to replace the lost child with a boy she snatches from the streets of a housing project. And now the film goes tag-team. Through shifting stories, we see how this kidnapping affects a round of poor people. The purloined kid is the son of a loping demiwhore named Carole (Mathilde Seigner, the ornery wife in With a Friend Like Harry). Her honest boyfriend François (Luck Mervil) is arrested for the disappearance, since the French are just as fond of the game of "pin the crime on the black man" as we are in the United States. Carole isn't too concerned about the kid ("I was real depressed at first," she says later), but the police activity cramps her style. It also disturbs the routine of Betty's best friend, a hapless gigolo (Edouard Baer, a Gallic Keanu Reeves), who's busy fixing up a scam of his own.

This tawdry tale is as quick as it is mean. It's not for people who are slow subtitle readers, though it's full of vintage film noir dialogue (Carole, asked why she never became a full-time streetwalker, snaps back, "Because I limp"). Unfortunately, the bracingly nasty beginning is undercut by the lighter, more slapstick ending. Still, Claude Miller's film fits squarely in that cinematic genre in which the French dominate the world: films that exist in the dangerous zone between icy thriller and deepest black comedy, that alternate between the poles of cruelty and humor with inimitable style.


Alias Betty (Unrated; 103 min.), directed by Claude Miller, written by Miller and Ruth Rendell, photographed by Christophe Pollock and starring Sandrine Kiberlain, Nicole Garcia and Mathilde Seigner, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.


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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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