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Extreme Situations

French director Claude Miller likes to see how people face challenges. His new 'Alias Betty' involves kidnapping and blackmail.

October 03, 2002|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"People say my films are preoccupied with characters who are a bit twisted," observes French director Claude Miller, whose psychological drama "Alias Betty" opens Friday. "I do like to put people in extreme situations, situations where they can't retreat to what they've learned in the past. I think the upheavals in our lives are just that, when we don't have references for dealing with what confronts us."

As a London Times writer once put it, Miller's "films are all serpentine swarms of suppressed passions and festering fears."

Sitting in a sun-dappled West Hollywood garden, Miller seems a man of such steely mental balance that it is hard to imagine anything tipping him asunder.

Although he may be unfamiliar to American audiences, Miller, 60, has directed 10 films and is respected enough in France that he served on this year's Cannes Film Festival jury. He manages a steady output of a film about every two years, with the help of his longtime producer, Annie Miller, who is his wife.

Yes, he says, he tosses his characters into upheavals, but that simply makes for interesting film. In "Alias Betty," thirtysomething Betty Fisher (Sandrine Kiberlain) finds herself the victim of outrageous fortune. The successful novelist returns to France after a bad marriage in the U.S. She moves into a beautiful house in a respectable Paris arrondissement with her young son, the joy of her life. But a visit from her difficult, demanding mother (Nicole Garcia) disturbs their peace, then tragedy strikes. Betty soon finds herself involved in kidnapping, blackmail and gangland machinations.

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Not necessarily the kind of film you'd predict from Miller's youth in Paris. "I adored all those old Hollywood films," he reports with gusto. "Those cheap ones about the 1,001 nights, the 'Thief of Baghdad.' I had very bad taste."

He comes from what he calls "a modest background" in which it was considered odd to work in the film world. "But throughout my childhood," he says, "all I wanted to do was to tell stories with the camera."

After attending film school, Miller was hired as film assistant on the productions of three legends of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson and Jacques Demy. Asked about his first jobs, he says, "I brought the sandwiches and the coffee.... I was very happy to just be there." Eventually, he made it to assistant director and production manager.

In the late 1960s, the apprentice found his favorite, and he worked with Francois Truffaut on 10 films, from "Stolen Kisses" (1968) to "The Story of Adele H" in 1975.

In 1976 Miller directed his first feature, "The Best Way to Walk," about the tensions between two young workers at summer camp.

Throughout, like every good auteur, Miller has chosen his projects and kept a hand in the writing. "That's the French system; the director is involved in the writing of the script," he says. "It doesn't interest me to do it any other way." He has often adapted from novels; "Alias Betty" is taken from a Ruth Rendell novel, "The Tree of Hands," with the setting moved from England to France. (It was made once before, not very successfully, by Giles Forster in 1988.)

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Miller likes to say that casting is 80% of the work, and he cast Kiberlain before he wrote the screenplay. (Kiberlain has said that she had wanted to work with Miller so much she accepted his offer straightaway, without seeing a script.) Alexis Chatrian, the boy who plays Jose, was found two weeks before shooting began.

The director has been praised before for his work with child actors, and he says he has a very different way of working with children than with adults. He didn't try to discuss or explain the plot to young Chatrian, however. "He's too young; he's only 4," Miller says. Instead, he got the reactions he wanted in a circuitous manner. For example, in the scene in which Jose discovers a Christmas tree in the house, his face lights up with happy surprise; Miller got that look by having a magic trick performed for the boy off camera.

Viewers will find Miller's film a far cry from the nouvelle vague he was weaned on. Filled with fast cutting and snappy dialogue, "Betty" is also punctuated with a zippy jazz score. "I'm very obsessed with the problem of rhythm," he says. "For me, film is very close to music." He keeps the rhythm up because "I'm afraid of boring people."

Even with such pacing, bringing a French film to the U.S. is a hard sell, Miller concedes, but he likes to believe there's room for more sophisticated fare in U.S. theaters.

"I think that Hollywood films--not American films but specifically Hollywood films--are becoming worse and worse," he says. "They're made for teenagers, not for adults, and I think this creates a demand in the public for other things. So that's a little opportunity for us, to make films that aren't just for teenagers."

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