Qu'est que c'est 'Mommie Dearest'?

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

"Alias Betty" has several chapters named after different people who appear in the story, but it's mainly about the title character.

She's a French novelist who changed her name to Betty Fisher as a symbolic way of breaking with her past – and especially with her mother, a difficult and sometimes uncontrollable woman. The movie begins when the mother comes for a visit to her successful daughter, now a single mother with a young son.

When a tragic accident befalls the little boy, the older woman springs into action, kidnapping a child off the street for Betty to raise in place of her own.

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Betty knows this is wrong, but her grief-stricken state prevents her from immediately setting things right.

Then she learns that her little houseguest comes from a possibly abusive background, and starts to think she should hold on to him. By now, the media have gotten their hooks into the missing-child case, though, turning it into a public event.

More complications come from unsavory private citizens who affect Betty's dilemma in unexpected ways.

Written and directed by French filmmaker Claude Miller, who based his screenplay on a Ruth Rendell novel, "Alias Betty" spins an engrossing story that combines psychological drama, sociological reflection, and high-octane thriller.

He gets skillful support from an admirable cast led by Sandrine Kiberlain, who gives Betty a rich blend of strength and vulnerability, and Nicole Garcia, who's a blaze of misdirected fervency as the troublesome mom.

Miller began his career as an assistant to the great director François Truffaut, and, at its best, "Alias Betty" recalls Truffaut's legendary compassion as well as the fascination with Alfred Hitchcock's style that helped shape modern French cinema.

It's one of the season's most original and energetic movies.

• Not rated; contains violence and sex. In French with subtitles.

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