Novel experience

Film - Jonathan Romney watches a screen <em>roman</em>

One of the harshest things film critics can say about a film is that it is literary, and the harshest thing they can say about each other is the accusation of having a literary approach. This effectively means warning someone that you've detected their counter-revolutionary tendencies - a suspect preference, perhaps, for Jane Austen adaptations over Terminator 2. One of the great orthodoxies of the 1990s has been to rejoice that new film-makers are more influenced by Nintendo than by the novel. Funnily enough, I've heard this mantra more from Eng Lit academics than from working film critics - after all, they don't have to wade through the same acreage of sub-MTV stuff week after week, and the odd action pic comes as a nice relief between chapters of Middlemarch.

But there have always been film-makers committed to making films that seem literary - if you prefer, novelistic films. That doesn't mean they are any less committed to the form they choose to work in; it just means we need to suspend some of our prejudices. A prime example is the French director Andre Techine, whose oddest claim to fame is as the director of a Bronte sisters biopic featuring Roland Barthes as Thackeray - one for the annals of oddball cameos. For the past decade or so, Techine has concentrated on an intense, complex style of psychological realism. His last film, Les Voleurs, was almost entirely overlooked in Britain, although it had all the right selling points: star turns from Daniel Auteuil and Catherine Deneuve, lesbianism, teenage sex and organised crime. Quite apart from that, with its fragmented, leapfrogging narrative construction, Les Voleurs struck me as one of the few films I'd seen that approached the curious blend of realism and philosophical self-reflexivity you find in such French novels as Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters.

Again with Techine's new film, Alice et Martin, more literary comparisons come to mind than cinematic ones: Catholic novelists such as Francois Mauriac and Julien Green for the looming mix of crime and spiritual angst, and, towards the end, Stendhal and Dostoevsky. Alice et Martin is disorienting from the beginning. You start off expecting the story of young Martin's boyhood, as he's shunted off to stay with his forbidding father. Then, before you've even settled into your seat, there's a sudden leap of ten years into the adult Martin's madness - a life hiding in the mountains, scavenging from supermarket bins and watching eagles rip a goat carcass to shreds.

Where on earth is this story leading us? Even more unexpectedly, straight to Paris and the fashion business, where the fine-boned Martin (the moody newcomer Alexis Loret) has only to walk into an agency and, suddenly, he's the hottest face in town. We're just about getting our bearings when Techine throws us with a crafty reference to the real world. The film's other protagonist, Alice, gazes in amazement at Martin's face on huge perfume posters lining a Metro platform. The joke is that she's played by Juliette Binoche, these days as famous as the face of Lancome as for her films. By the time the duo become involved - she's the violinist friend of Martin's actor brother - you're neither sure where the story has left to go, nor how it has ended up where it is. That's when Techine takes a left turn, devoting the second half of the diptych to Alice, as she plays detective and works her way backwards through Martin's troubled life.

The big deal isn't just that this is an exceptionally complex narrative. But, since we've become used to narrative complexity in film meaning the jack-in-the-box tricksiness of Pulp Fiction or The Usual Suspects, it's worth pointing out that Alice et Martin is complex in the way that only the most tantalising novels usually are. The story jumps forward, backward, turns itself inside out, all with equal elasticity. It uses devices that, for the sake of plausibility and easy comprehension, are usually banned from the screenwriter's code of practice: characters who figure only marginally at the start reappear later and are given as much weight as the principle players; or new characters turn up, about whom, strictly speaking, we ought to have known earlier.

Techine specialises in playing stars off against newcomers, and this film's trick is to have Binoche as a very ordinary woman left standing by the turbulent charisma of wild child Martin - played by Loret as a beautiful blank that soon starts twisting itself into painful shapes. Binoche is a long way from the glossy romantic parts she's played recently: the cliche has it that she's "luminous", but here she's more shiny, half glowing from emotional excitement, half worn translucent by common stress. The third part of the triangle, Martin's brother Benjamin, is played by Mathieu Amalric, one of the up-and-coming names of French cinema, a wry intello with the startled pallor of a veal calf.

Techine is usually considered representative of the so-called "intimist" strain that thrives in France - small, enclosed stories with a fine-fibre sensitivity to looks and emotions. But Alice et Martin belies this label in its way of "going big" with the story, as they say on the newsdesks. If you follow the zeitgeist, this is not the sort of thing that current cinema is supposed to be doing at all. But Alice et Martin is about the most intelligent and engrossing new novel I've read this year, and that's innovative film-making in my book.

"Alice et Martin" (15) opens on 3 December at selected London cinemas

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser