'Alice': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Loll Willems
More morally complex than it first appears.

A mother must become a prostitute to save her home in Josephine Mackerras' Paris-set drama.

A Parisian woman blindsided by her husband's betrayal finds there's only one thing she can do to keep a roof over her son's head in Alice, a surprisingly ambivalent film about prostitution by Josephine Mackerras. The writer-director's first feature has much going for it, above all a striking performance by Emilie Piponnier in the title role. Neither a fallen-woman melodrama nor an encomium to guilt-free sex work, the complicated moral tale has strong art house potential.

When we meet Alice, her husband Francois (Martin Swabey) is busy being an adoring father to their toddler Jules and wowing their friends at dinner parties — an author who quotes romantic poems on cue, he appears very in love with his wife. Then one morning he leaves the house looking stressed, and Alice finds her bank cards don't work. Francois has drained all their bank accounts, stopped paying their mortgage and vanished, ignoring her increasingly panicked phone calls. Unless she can come up with nearly 8,000 euros in two weeks, and maintain that payment plan for the foreseeable future, she'll be evicted in a month.

After learning that Francois has been spending huge sums of their money on call girls, Alice goes undercover to visit the service he used — and she's offered a job. The "purest woman" Francois has ever known finds herself unable to refuse the prospect of getting up to a couple thousand euros per client.

Rather than becoming a tale of degradation, Alice finds its heroine mostly unchanged by this new job; soon she's enjoying the deepest friendship of her life with fellow escort Lisa (Chloe Boreham), an Australian who has completely made peace with sex work. (She only hates that what she does shares a label with what the victims of human trafficking are forced to do.) After Francois has come groveling back to her, offering to care for their child while she goes to work (he thinks she has a new job as a millionaire's assistant), Alice enjoys several scenes of frolicking with Lisa in parks and on canals.

But while Mackerras' script may have stacked the deck a bit in forcing Alice into this position — her initial pleas for help from her mother and a friend are rebuffed with unbelievable callousness — its second act is less tidy. Though he's deeply contrite and desperate for her to love him again, Francois is also volatile in his neediness — even before he learns how she's making her money. (As for Alice's rich customers, they tend toward the sympathetic and are filmed without salaciousness. We never see her being mistreated, and even the most awkward encounter ends on a friendly note.) Alice's situation has grown awfully complicated; then another surprise gives the film a chance to deepen (if only briefly) its take on the morality of trading sex for money.

Ultimately, Mackerras is less concerned with that question than with the fate of her protagonist, a woman Piponnier has shown to be resilient and determined. However hard the situation hits her initially, once she understands she's alone, she accepts the challenge. "I take responsibility" she says near the end, after facing a series of injustices and threats. She's true to her word.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Cast: Emilie Piponnier, Martin Swabey, Chloe Boreham, Christophe Favre, David Coburn, Philippe de Monts, Rébecca Finet, Juliette Tresanini, Nicolas Buchoux, Robert Burns
Director-screenwriter-producer: Josephine Mackerras
Director of photography: Mickael Delahaie
Editor: Marsha Bramwell
Composer: Alexander Levy
Casting director: Elise McLeod
Sales: Visit Films

In French
105 minutes