INTERVIEW: An Absurdist Tragedy on Child Abduction; Claude Miller's "Alias Betty"
by Erica Abeel
(indieWIRE: 09.13.02) -- In an auspicious start to his career, director Claude Miller worked as assistant on eight films for Francois Truffaut. Early success greeted "The Best Way," his 1975 debut feature about the sexual confusions of a camp counselor. Miller's subsequent oeuvre of edgy psychological thrillers, often involving children, have received critical praise and festival awards (most recently, "Class Trip" took the grand jury prize at Cannes in 1998.) Abroad, Miller has attained what the French call succes d'estime -- translation: artistic cachet without big box-office numbers. Yet stateside the name Claude Miller triggers little recognition. Cinephiles here know him principally for directing "The Little Thief," written by Truffaut, and 1993's "The Accompanist" featuring the father-daughter firepower of Richard Bohringer and Romane Bohringer.
But the release here of his psychological thriller "Alias Betty" should bring the 60-year-old Miller a richly deserved visibility in the U.S. Adapted from "The Tree of Hands" by crime novelist Ruth Rendell, "Alias Betty" is more accessible and emotionally charged than much of Miller's previous work. It centers on newly successful novelist Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain), whose young son dies in an accident. Margot (Nicole Garcia), Betty's clinically wacko mother, comes up with the perfect solution: she "replaces" the child by snatching Jose, a boy from the projects. Miller uses this nightmare collision to tour the worlds of privileged suburbanites and underclass Parisians that intersect with Betty's. In a departure from the usual French focus on mood and relationships, "Betty" packs enough plot for five films, barreling forward with distinctly American elan. It's bound to draw comparisons with "Read My Lips" -- yet it never deteriorates, like that film, into an action bloodbath. And its looping, multi-layered narrative should appeal to fans of "Pulp Fiction" and "Shortcuts." Mixing tragedy with absurdity, "Betty" raises provocative questions about the nature of coincidence, degrees of separation, maternal instinct, and life's paradoxical reversals, suggesting that sometimes the most reprehensible act can shower down blessings. Erica Abeel recently spoke with the genial, forthright Miller at the Hotel Mayflower, New York's home away from home for foreign directors.
indieWIRE: How has Truffaut influenced your work?
Claude Miller: He's influenced my approach to filmmaking, rather than the themes in my movies. By watching him work, I learned a lot about directing actors.
iW: Yet like Truffaut, your films often feature children, particularly children who are treated cruelly.
Miller: I'm concerned with cruelty, of people toward each other, as well as class and social inequities. And yes, I'm especially attuned to the suffering and maltreatment of children. It's not autobiographical -- my parents were good people and I had a normal childhood. It's simply that my memories of powerful emotions -- be it fear or happiness -- come from childhood. And when I need to draw on my imagination, it's childhood memories that spring to mind. Perhaps because I find the adult world more mystifying, I feel less empathy for grownups.
iW: How did you discover Ruth Rendell?
Miller: I saw "La Ceremonie," a film I might have wanted to make if I had read the book before Claude Chabrol. I like the complexity of her female characters, the fact that there's no outright villain, and that the story's not centered on a crime. I also like powerful suspense stories that viewers can identify with. Seeing "Betty," a woman might say to herself, "My mother has never been that extreme [as Margot], but just a few degrees more