Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Betty Fisher and Other Stories



Betty Fisher et Autres Histoires : France 2001 : Claude Miller : 102 mins

ONE-LINE REVIEW: Half psychological drama, half melodramatic thriller, this quirkily jagged but well-acted Gallic jeu desprit is never less than intriguing.

Betty Fisher is a startling oddball mixture of dark drama and semi-comic melodrama that will strike many viewers as somehow typically French. This may seem strange, considering its based on a novel (Tree of Hands) by the English writer Ruth Rendell. Then again, while British screen-adaptations of Rendells books have been relatively unadventurous TV mini-series, it can’t be a coincidence that at least three prominent continental directors have recently turned her works into well-received features – Miller now joining Claude Chabrol (La Ceremonie, based on A Judgement In Stone) and Pedro Almodovar (Live Flesh).

Theres a clear parallel Patricia Highsmith, the US-born writer to whom Rendell is most often compared, both of them responsible for crafting narratives of moral and psychological intricacy which have struck a particular chord with European readers and film-makers. For much of its running-time, Betty Fisher is a typical example of the Rendall/Highsmith mode: an engrossingly complex, confident and sober exploration of serious themes: grief, guilt, maternity, relationships and conscience. The sinister tone is set in a striking prologue set on a train (and making imaginative use of digital-video) in which a sleeping mother is woken by her young daughter, whom she suddenly attacks with a pair of scissors.

Twenty-five years later, the daughter, Betty Fisher (Sandrine Kilberlain) is a successful writer, recently has returned from New York to her native Paris, with her pre-schooler son Joseph (Arthur Setbon). Bettys mother Margot (Nicole Garcia) arrives in the city for unspecified hospital tests, and stays with her daughter and grandson in their comfortable house in Vaucresson, an up-market suburb. Its clear that Margot is still somewhat mentally volatile, and her relationship with Betty remains strained. On the first night of Margots visit, Joseph accidentally falls from an upstairs window and is taken to hospital, where he later dies.

The unpredictable Margot reacts by kidnapping another child Jose (Alexias Chatrian) from an inner-city housing estate, telling the grief-numbed, suicidal Betty that he’s the godson of a holidaying friend. While Joses waitress mother Carole (Mathilde Seigner) appeals (somewhat half-heartedly) in the media for Joses return, the police suspect her on-off boyfriend Francois (Luck Mervil) of being behind the childs disappearance. Miller nimbly juggles these and several other subplots that spiral out from the main narrative, dividing up into chapters named after each of the characters: Josephs Story, Caroles Story, etc.

While ostensibly taking place in a recognisable, if relatively nondescript Paris two of the key locations are beer bars located inside tacky shopping-malls the narrative is a long way from gritty, documentary-style realism. The characters are like hapless pawns in some wider game, their destinies and fates hinging on increasingly absurd coincidences and contrivances. These make for an entertaining, unpredictable movie (and it would be unfair to reveal how the various stories pan out) but there comes a point where melodrama overwhelms drama, and in Betty Fisher this arrives in a climactic show-down in one of those shopping-mall beer bars.

This scene and the very last one, set in an airport emphasise the incompatibility of the films split-personality. On the one hand, its a harrowing tale of mental breakdown in the face of shattering family tragedy. On the other, its a freewheelingly implausible comic-tinged thriller which turns the very real emotions of its characters into a kind of ludicrous farce and the strength of the performances only serves to underline the problem (Seigner, in a stunning change of pace from her subdued turn in Harry Hes Here To Help, makes the biggest impact though Carole is the showiest role.)

The results are absorbing but never fully satisfying especially in comparison with Michael Hanekes much more demanding and consistent Code Unknown, another Paris-based drama divided into chapters as it spirals out into multiple subplots. The story inter-titles in Betty Fisher dont really add anything here especially since Bettys Story confusingly appears twice. Theyre just the kind of stylistic affectation which the austere Haneke would instinctively avoid he’d also never dream of using the gauzy effect deployed by cinematographer Christophe Pollock whenever veteran actress (and director) Garcia appears in in close-up, and he’d run a mile from Millers clumsy handling of the end credits though the opening credits are exemplary. As is the editing by Veronique Langue, who delivers a crisp master-class that’s rather better than this crazy script deserves, and which helps Betty Fisher to be sufficiently unusual and intriguing enough to get away with its various glaring lapses.

26th July 2002
(seen 24th, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young