In Josephine Mackerras’ debut feature Alice, she explores the dissolution of a seemingly perfect marriage and how it transforms both partners. However, as the title suggests, most of the focus is on the wife, Alice (Emilie Piponnier). At the beginning of the film, we see the couple at a dinner party with friends, with everyone “practically perfect in every way.” It doesn’t take very long for us to see that this is not the case. The morning after the party, Alice’s husband Francois (Martin Swabey) is in a major rush to get out the door at 8 am, and takes a swig of whiskey before he leaves. Alice seems a little alarmed by this but goes on with her day.
Alice goes on a routine trip to the pharmacy to find both of her credit cards declined. She calls Francois several times to no answer. She goes to the office of the bank and finds out that Francois has taken all of their money and spent it, including Alice’s inheritance from her father. She tries even more desperately to contact him after this, to no avail. As she becomes more and more frantic, she discovers more and more Francois’ dark secrets. Including the fact that he spent most of the money, he stole on high-end escorts. She’s frantic because this affects not only her but also her son, Jules (Milo Levy Mackerras).
“She goes to the office of the bank and finds out that Francois has taken all of their money and spent it…”
To discover how much money he spent per each date, Alice goes to a job interview for new staff at Elegant Escorts. The madame will not give her information over the phone. Incidentally, she ends up getting hired. At first, she is not going to accept the position, but when she finds out that she must pay A LOT of money to the bank to keep her home, she decides to give the whole escort thing a try. She befriends a fellow escort, Lisa (Chloé Boreham), who joins Alice on her journey from a relatively shy person who her husband refers to as “the purest person in the world,” to an escort who finally has control of her own life.
Alice does not look down upon sex work or sex workers. It’s not condescending or overly sentimental, which, let’s be honest, is a very French point of view. I don’t think this film would be made the same way if it were in English, for a primarily American audience. Simply because of our puritanical values in addition to our overall disdain of sex workers, and any display of female empowerment in regards to sexuality.
The film touches on the fact that this sentiment is somewhat universal. It also shows how older people across the world cling to their traditions for dear life. This is evident in a phone call between Alice and her mother, before she becomes an escort. She’s begging to come home and her mother says “Alice, you don’t leave your husband at the first sign of difficulty.” Even though Alice didn’t leave anything. She also says “Maybe he felt something was missing at home” when Alice told her he spent all their money on escorts.
“It’s as if Simone De Beauvoir directed Sweet Charity except it’s not a musical and the protagonist has a kid…”
There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual material that writer/director Josephine Mackerras grapples with in Alice, and she is quite successful in doing so. My short summation of the whole movie after seeing Alice was “It’s as if Simone De Beauvoir directed Sweet Charity except it’s not a musical and the protagonist has a kid.” Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but the spirit of the film is very similar to Sweet Charity, in that the protagonist has to go through some painful lessons to discover who she truly is as a person.
The performances are great. I especially enjoy the friendship dynamic between Emilie Piponnier and Chloé Boreham as Alice and Lisa. Martin Swabey as Francois is the perfect, horrible clueless man that you’ll love to hate. I can’t leave without mentioning how much I enjoyed the score by Alexandre Levy Forrest. It’s a futuristic French pop that echoes the hope and fear that Alice has about abandoning her old self and becoming who she always wanted to be.
Alice (2019) Written and Directed by Josephine Mackerras. Starring Emilie Piponnier, Chloé Boreham, Martin Swabey, David Coburn, Etienne Guillou-Kervern, Christophe Favre, Juliette Tresanini, Eliza Calmat, Nicolas Buchoux, Philippe de Monts, Johann Morio, Marie Coulonjou, Benjamin Bourgois, Rébecca Finet, Robert Burns, and Milo Levy Mackerras. Alice screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars