Betty Fisher et Autres Histoires (2001)

Though the French admiration for American noir writers is well-known, it is less often remarked that quite a few French filmmakers (Claude Chabrol, most notably) have an instinctive sympathy with a certain type of British thriller, exemplified by the acute psychological suspense fables of Ruth Rendell. This adaptation of her A Tree of Hands follows Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh as a continental take on Rendell - with its mad mother and suffering daughter plus a brew of class, race and sex neuroses, Betty Fisher might have made an interesting Almodovar project – and transplants the story effectively into the monied Paris suburb of Vaucresson and a nearby hellhole estate

Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a devoted single mother who has had a fluke best-seller with an account of a brief marriage in New York, but is constantly nagged by intrusions from her past. Her mother Margot (Nicole Garcia), who we see stabbing her hand with scissors in a train compartment, suffers from porphyria, which makes her self-involved, self-pitying and wildly erratic. When mother shows up to stay and have 'tests', she is alternately ingratiating and cruel, viewing an accident which puts Betty's son in hospital as an irritating distraction from her own plight and casually adding to Betty's troubles by seeming to disappear during the night Betty spends in hospital with her son, who dies in the morning just as mother cheerfully shows up with good news about her tests. The film then switches to its next 'story', which seems to take off on a tangent as we meet another single mother, Carole (Mathilde Seigner), a shoplifting barmaid with a black boyfriend and many odd admirers, who finds having a child a frequent inconvenience. Margot shows up with Carole's child, claiming to be looking after him for a friend, and Betty soon realises the boy has been kidnapped, but takes him in – first to keep her mother out of trouble, then because she does find a maternal interest in the child, whose bruises and bandaged wrist suggest he has been abused by one of the uncaring adults in his life. Meanwhile, feckless fathers intervene – the probable father of Carole's boy is Alex (Luck Mervil), a gigolo conman who comes up with a scam to sell his mistress's mansion to a Russian gangster and then skip the country, while Betty's ex Edouard (Edoard Baer), a charming but resentful failed author is on to the kidnap and wants to worm his way into Betty's life so he can be supported.

Director Claude Miller begins the film like Short Cuts, with vignettes of complicated family relationships, but then Rendell's suspense mechanisms and criminal ambiguities creep in, setting up a last act of multiple ironies as things are sorted out to the best interests of Betty (though only at the very end) by the venal, insane or calculating supporting characters whose plots against each other and Betty intertwine and wind up cancelling each other out (sometimes literally, it's the sort of film where a would-be killer draws a rifle bead on someone who isn't who he assumes it is but can't go through with it only for someone hitherto barely-noticed to charge in and shoot the man dead at close range), mostly through the well-planted coincidence of three people booking tickets on a plane for Thailand over the Christmas holidays. Its unlikelinesses only come late in the film, after we've bought into the characterisations: Kiberlain is effective as the semi-saint, a coolly freckled blonde in the Hitchcock manner but with a positive maternal slant unusual in the genre (and this film), and Garcia, haggardly glamorous, is wonderful in the dream role of the mother who keeps twisting her understanding of reality to suit herself and whose single most charitable act is also amazingly callous.

First published in this form here.

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