Mothers in Action

The pleasures of a crime-movie machine.


written and directed by Claude Miller

runs Nov. 29-Dec. 5 at Varsity

A LITTLE BIRD LANDS on a windowsill, luring a 4-year-old boy to fall to his death. His deranged grandmother promptly kidnaps a new replacement lad for her grief-stricken daughter, creating a tabloid sensation in Paris. It sounds like film noir, but the pleasure of Claude Miller's ingeniously tight little thriller is how it takes familiar conventions of crime fiction and spins them like so many well-oiled gears. Alias Betty is a mousetrap movie precisely engineered to produce a satisfying—if not exactly surprising—conclusion. Instead, it's the web of interrelated coincidences and characters along the way that's continually surprising and delightful. Each new face gets introduced with a little "The history of . . ." chapter title that sends Betty spinning on a new digressive tangent. But all the threads are woven into the same fine fabric.

The principal characters, of course, are Margot (Nicole Garcia) and her novelist daughter Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain). They've got a troubled past (illustrated in a brief, disturbing prologue aboard a train), but Margot wants to atone for that now. "You lost your boy, I found another one for you," she says with touchingly demented logic. By rights, her crime ought to have serious repercussions. The cops are closing in; the child's rightful mother has some dangerous mobster boyfriends; and young Jos頳hould be crying for his mama. Instead, however, all the overlapping incidents and chance encounters carry Betty from gloom to light.

The effect is kind of like Am鬩e with guns. A mere sparrow causes a chain of unintended reactions that touch at least a dozen lives. By the end, there's even a shootout and a chase with a briefcase containing $10 million. Little clues are planted throughout—like a cop's upcoming vacation in Thailand—that pay dividends later on. You're aware you're being played with all the while, as Miller nimbly shifts from story to story and character to character. Betty is all about serendipity—except, of course, there's nothing left to chance in its well-wrought script.

However much fun it is to watch, though, Betty isn't all frivolity. At its core, the movie's about three different mothers: one insane, one bereaved, and one disreputable (Jos駳 mother, Carole, played by Mathilde Seigner, is a shoplifter and sometime prostitute). Each, within her abilities, has something to offer in coping with the demands of motherhood: Margot gives her crazy audacity, Betty her love, and Carole her ultimate resignation—as if she somehow intuits that little Jos頩s in good hands. So he is, and so is the movie.

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