In an impressive run of elegantly crafted, gratifyingly complex character studies (Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season, Thieves), French miniaturist André Téchiné has distinguished himself by taking human behavior as a mystery, marked by powerful bonds and traumas that are hard to pin down. So it's disappointing that his otherwise accomplished new melodrama, Alice And Martin, hinges on a single event from the past as if it were a skeleton key, capable of accessing all the messy psychology on screen. Easy as it is to predict, Téchiné wisely chooses to withhold this revelation until the last possible moment, sketching characters and relationships that seem far too complicated and elusive for such a pat explanation. In the masterful prologue, a sensitive boy is sent away by his single mother (Carmen Saura) to live with his estranged father, a wealthy tyrant with three sons of his own from another marriage. Cut to 10 years later, and the boy—now a young man played by Alexis Loret—is rushing in a panicked huff from the gates of the family estate, clearly horrified by what he's just witnessed. After a series of disorienting ellipses that find him dressed in rags, living in the woods, and poaching eggs from a nearby chicken coop, Loret resurfaces in Paris, arriving at the doorstep of gay half-brother Mathieu Amalric and his roommate, a violinist played by Juliette Binoche. Loret and Binoche fall in love, but the past continues to haunt him, infecting their relationship and forbidding a healthy transition into his adult life. Poignant, intense, and often brilliantly directed, Alice And Martin is a marvel of psychological shorthand, built from a careful collection of telling gestures and phrases rather than broad strokes. When Téchiné finally explains it all away through a hastily inserted flashback, it's like he's at war with his own sensibility, reducing the rich portraiture he'd worked so hard to establish. But even with such a major flaw at its core, Alice And Martin is an assured and humane variation on the director's pet themes, a letdown only by his lofty standards.
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