A middle-aged woman in sunglasses and a small girl, presumably her daughter, sit in the compartment of a speeding train. The girl keeps warily eyeing her mother, who sits there placidly, and at one point reaches over and attempts to lift up her shades, as though trying to see if she’s still really there. Suddenly the older woman comes to life, reaches for a pair of scissors in her purse and stabs her daughter in the hand. We then flash forward several years to a young woman named Bridget (Sandrine Kiberlain) who, under the pen name Betty Fisher, has just written a successful first novel. She’s separated from her husband and lives with her young son, Joseph. She’s expecting a visit from her mother and, as a discreet close-up shows us, she has a nasty scar on the back of her hand.
Alias Betty (the original French title, which translates as Betty Fisher and Other Stories, is more accurately descriptive) is an adaptation by French writer-director Claude Miller of a Ruth Rendell novel. It has the sort of queasy suspense one has come to expect from that oft-adapted writer, as people with either good intentions or a heightened sense of self-interest make a series of bad decisions until an unhappy ending seems inescapable. It’s also a film of interlocking stories, coincidental almost to the point of fantasy, something Miller emphasizes rather than tries to overlook. He uses the motif of two strangers in close proximity, each unaware that they are having some important effect on the other’s life. The idea suggested by the film’s complicated pattern is that there is a design to their fate, that these often impulsive characters are pieces in a puzzle that will lock together regardless of what they do. It’s a well-lit movie with a classic noir subtext: Claw as you may — the trap has long been set.
In the years since the attack on the train, Betty’s mother, Margot (Nicola Garcia), has supposedly recovered somewhat. (A title card at the film’s beginning suggests that she suffers from porphyria, a hereditary disease that can result in violent episodes.) But she’s still moody and self-absorbed and, as it turns out, a little crazy. This becomes evident after Betty’s son falls out of a second-story window and dies. Margot’s reaction is to go out and try to find a replacement. She kidnaps a boy named Jose (Alexis Chatrian) and seems a little miffed when Betty doesn’t immediately accept this offering of a surrogate son.
Jose’s mother is a tough sometime prostitute named Carole (Mathilde Seigner). Much to the chagrin of her black boyfriend, François (Luck Mervil), she seems unconcerned with Jose’s disappearance while basking in the media attention the kidnapping brings her. The police naturally suspect François — after all, he’s black — as well as, initially, Carole’s old boyfriend, Alex (Edouard Bear), a hustler who’s currently scamming a rich, older woman and who may or not be Jose’s father.
The question then becomes when and whether Betty is going to return Jose to his mother, and whether she should, given Carole’s general awfulness. That’s the basic thread and it’s embellished by the untimely appearance of Betty’s ex-husband, the complicated mire of Carole and her milieu and the loose-cannon behavior of crazy Margot.
Miller’s approach is generally low-keyed with subtle shifts of tone and there’s a slightly eliding feel to the narrative as it moves from story to story. The only really false note is struck by the two policemen who badger François and who act like movie cops, having placed their desire to be tough guys above their desire to be effective. They know how to bully a suspect into surly silence, but where does that get them? And it’s not just that they’re racists — they take the same approach with Alex. On the other hand, the cowboy attitude of one of the cops plays an essential role in the film’s ironic denouement (with its echoes of Kubrick’s The Killing), so you just have to buy the premise that these guys somehow get results.
It’s a small concession to make to a movie that offers the pleasure of watching several loose ends be tied up by a clever, if slightly overdetermined plot.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.