Alias Betty
directed by Claude Miller
(Wellspring, 2001)

Brigitte "Betty" Fisher is an author whose first book has just won her money, status and acclaim. But none of those can begin to compensate for the accidental death of her young son, Joseph (Arthur Setbon). Fortunately, her mother (Nicole Garcia) has the solution: kidnap a similar child and let him take Joseph's place.

That all sounds much too crazy, and it would be, if we didn't know the characters involved. But we do.

Alias Betty is -- on the surface, at least -- the story of Betty Fisher (Sandrine Kiberlain), as its French title, Betty Fisher et autres histoires, makes perfectly clear. But Betty's story is really just one of several in Alias.

There's the story of Betty's mother, Margot, who's been mentally unbalanced and suicidal for as long as anyone can remember. She's arriving in Paris as the film opens, with plans to stay with Betty and Joseph while having some tests done at a nearby hospital.

Then there's the story of Carole Novacki (Mathilde Seigner), a local barmaid who divides her time between sleeping with every straight guy in Paris and neglecting her young son, Jose (Alexia Chartian), whose paternity has never been determined. And there's the story of Novacki's tenant, Francois Diembele (Luck Mervil), an immigrant looking for work and sharing Novacki's bed.

Add to this the stories of Novacki's overly concerned boss, Milo (Michael Abiteboul); Betty's estranged husband, Edouard (Stephane Freiss); Joseph's doctor (Roschdy Zem), who chooses this inopportune moment to fall in love with Betty; and Novacki's former boyfriend, Alex (Edouard Baer), a grifter who makes his living sleeping with heiresses and selling forged passports, and you have enough suspects to keep Columbo busy for a year.

But Alias Betty is no simple tale of good and evil. Director Claude Miller has seen to that by showing us too much about each character to make any judgments simple.

The result is an extended exercise in moral relativism, in which what's generally agreed-upon as wrong can suddenly be right, and what's clearly defined as right can be oh-so-wrong.

Take Jose. That's what Margot did. That's wrong, or so you think, until it becomes clear that the only times Jose wasn't neglected was when he was being abused. Or take Betty, who's torn between returning the child and protecting her mother, though it's made perfectly clear that Margot was never much of a protector herself. What does Betty owe Margot? Who knows?

The final irony, however, belongs to the police, who convince themselves that Diembele is their man. Yet we know Diembele is completely innocent -- at least until he decides to place the blame (and his cross hairs) on Alex.

And so it goes: misunderstandings lead to mistakes which lead to larger misunderstanings which can only lead to larger and more dangerous mistakes. Soon half of Paris seems caught up in a tissue of lies and half-truths that no one -- except possibly the viewer -- has the perspective to sort out.

Making it all plausible is an ensemble of actors and actresses who are convincing from the outset and only get better as their stories unravel. None is particularly glamorous. This is no star vehicle; the emphasis, as the title says, is on storytelling.

The same could be said for the editing and camerawork. The pace is crisp; scenes contain nothing more than they need. And after a few fleeting, flashing images in the opening flashback, the camera settles down to a series of rather unassuming shots, all of which reveal the workaday characters of people caught up in something that's much too big for any of them to handle.

Fortunately, it wasn't too big for Miller. He took a story about lies, lies and more lies and wrung from it a powerful truth. That alone is worth the price of admission.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 6 November 2004

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