By Andrea Thompson
The French film “Alice” is one of those character studies with quite a bit to say, and is actually able (though sometimes just barely) to avoid soapbox territory. Writer-director Josephine Mackerras is making her feature length debut here, and the fact that she’s able to show such restraint is impressive.
The Alice (Emilie Piponnier) of the title begins the film with every indicator that she’s about to be put through the wringer. She’s happily married to Francois (Martin Swabey), and they have an adorable young son named Jules. They’re all beautiful, blonde, and live in a lovely home where they regularly invite their friends over to dinner parties and make them uncomfortable when they passionately make out with each other. At first the only cracks in the facade is when Francois is asked about his long-awaited novel, and we get our first hint that Francois may be less about substance than style.
This premonition, however, doesn’t to the storm that suddenly engulfs Alice when she tries to make a small purchase and her card is denied. She soon discovers that foreclosure has already begun on her home because her husband hasn’t been making payments on the loan, all their accounts are empty, Francois is nowhere to be found, and neither is any of Alice’s money. She soon discovers that Francois has been living a double life, and has gone broke because spending money on high-end escorts.
When Alice calls her mother for support, she seems uninterested in letting Alice come home than in trying to justify her husband’s actions, and Alice realizes she has even less options than she initially believed. She does find one though, ironically by discovering the escort agency in her husband’s things and seeking it out, eventually deciding to work as an escort herself. Her vulnerability leads her to seek guidance and support from Lisa (Chloé Boreham), one of the more experienced women at the agency.
Lisa soon becomes her best friend, and the source of the more on-the-nose dialogue that’s nevertheless insightful of just how well-prepared Alice actually is for sex work. After Alice’s first time, she confides to Lisa that she doesn’t feel different, and Lisa laughingly replies, “You mean now that you’re a fallen woman?” As she points out, Alice has been taught her whole life how to read people and please them accordingly. The film doesn’t exactly go so far as to say that what Alice is empowering, just more honest about how women are trained to indulge men sexually and emotionally.
As Alice continues to successfully ply her new trade, it is the fact that she is now aware just how much she was and is pretending for a living that allows her to face the truth, which comes in handy when Francois suddenly reappears asking to be allowed back in her life. Alice is uninterested, but when she’s unable to find a babysitter for Jules during her late-night activities, she lets Francois take over in a particularly amusing irony. She tells him she found a job as an assistant to a rich American woman, but when he inevitably finds out the truth, Alice’s life threatens to come apart completely.
Her situation becomes an especially poignant commentary on the hypocritical double standards of sex work. After Francois discovers what Alice has been up to, he sees her as a pure woman who is just as lost without him as he is without her, and has degraded herself in his absence. After Alice replies she doesn’t feel degraded and tries to leave to meet another client, Francois tries to rape her. (The fact that this happens from him and not one of her customers makes it the film’s most shocking moment.) Then he threatens to divorce her and reveal her activities, thus ensuring that he would receive full custody of their son. As even sympathetic people point out, Francois can use escorts and still be considered a good father and businessman. Alice’s work as an escort would lead her to be considered an unfit mother.
In the hands of Josephine Mackerras and lead Emilie Piponnier, what could be soap opera melodrama or another hooker with a heart of gold story becomes a complex drama about a woman who refuses to remain victimized and takes her life into her own hands. Mackerass also emphasizes the vulnerability and pain of Alice’s clients, focusing on their wedding rings (rather than female nudity) so we wonder just what they are hiding from their own partners. Emilie Piponnier’s performance is astounding, aided by the kind of expressive eyes an actor would kill for. She skillfully, realistically conveys vulnerability, desperation, and finally determination as she fights to be free. The fact that it won the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW feels like a triumph. Hopefully this leads to more opportunities for both women.