Not since Maria Schell tossed her life away for her drunken husband in Rene Clement's Gervaise has a woman so suffered for love. But while Gervaise, based on a character created by Emile Zola, was strictly 19th-century, Alice (Juliette Binoche) is quite contemporary in every respect, except for her overwhelming desire to sacrifice herself for a man. When we first meet her in Alice and Martin, she is scraping by as a violinist and living with a would-be actor, Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), who is cheerful and gay in every sense of the word. Into their bohemian world comes Benjamin's half-brother, Martin (Alexis Loret), haunted by his mysterious past, but soon to become something of a rage as a successful model.

At first, Alice is able to resist Martin's romantic gambits, which include stalking her at night even though they live in the same apartment, but gradually she finds herself attracted to him. Alas, she is ever so much more appealing as a character before she falls in love, because once she crosses the abyss from independent woman to passionate love slave, she is considerably less interesting. For then, she tells us in overly blunt dialogue that she is willing to put up with any abuse, so he need not think that insulting or beating her is going to have much effect. The result: Martin is stuck with a barnacle-like companion, while the audience suffers a tediously predictable doormat.

At this point, no doubt, feminists in the audience will be rushing up the aisles, but Andr Tchin's direction is so accomplished and Caroline Champetier's photography so stunning that there are more than enough reasons to sit through the serpentine structure that leads pretty much where we suspected it was going all along. Something in the nature of obsessive love requires that the plot be resolved by misery, if not tragedy, and it is inevitably painful to accept the many blows-most of them emotional-that Alice takes in the pursuit of her secular martyrdom. France, in particular, has made more than its fair share of films about women giving their all for l'amour. Perhaps that is why this material, though it strives to be smart and savvy, ultimately feels old-hat.

Still, an excellent cast goes far to redeem Alice and Martin. Juliette Binoche is one of the most beautiful and sensible actors of our time, and whereas Maria Schell appeared a victim of love in Gervaise, Binoche comes across as perfectly aware of and triumphant over the pitfalls inherent in her own particular brand of self-sacrifice. The only caveat one might have about Binoche's Alice is that she retains her model-thin figure throughout her purported pregnancy. Co-star Loret is much more than a pretty face, skillfully portraying an anguished young man too sensitive to survive a crime that many people would dismiss-at worst-as a justifiable outburst. The gifted Amalric is a ball of fire as a loving brother and flamboyant companion of the two protagonists. Ironically, he is never more convincing than when butchering Shakespeare's verse as the title character in Richard III.

--Bruce Feld