'Alice and the Mayor' ('Alice et le maire'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A drama in which ideas outshine the characters.

French director Nicolas Pariser's second feature stars Fabrice Luchini as the mayor of Lyon and Anais Demoustier as the young philosopher hired to help him have ideas.

Despite — or perhaps exactly because of — his 30 years of political experience, the mayor of Lyon, France’s second-biggest city, is completely out of ideas in Alice and the Mayor (Alice et le maire). This being a French film, the most logical thing to do in this situation is to, of course, hire a brilliant young philosopher with which the mayor can have occasional sparring matches of ideas. It is an intriguing, well, idea, but writer-director Nicolas Pariser — whose first feature, The Great Game with Melvil Poupaud, was also about the corridors of power — can’t quite decide whether his sophomore effort is more interested in the theories and systems portrayed or in the people that have them and work in them. 

That said, a Directors’ Fortnight slot in Cannes should provide enough visibility for sales agent Bac Films to place it at quite a few festivals and possibly in a theater or two, if an SVOD platform doesn’t snatch up worldwide rights first. Alice and the Mayor is set to be released in France in October.

Of all the French actors, Fabrice Luchini is arguably the best at portraying men whose intelligence is an innate part of who they are. Whether he’s playing a judge (in Courted), a reclusive stage actor (in Cycling With Moliere), a literary critic (in the recent The Mystery of Henry Pick) or even a comic-book version of Julius Caesar (in Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia), Luchini’s characters are always smart men whose problems stem from other things than issues of incomprehension or lack of brains. 

That’s why you could argue that he’s both typecast and cast against type in the role of Paul Theraneau, the whip-smart mayor of Lyon who has been in the political game for so long, and has played it so well, that he has finally run out of ideas. The reason no one has noticed yet is because of the inertia of the political system, Theraneau explains, which is the first of many observations about the political world that sounds both truthful and terrifying. 

The good news is that the moment the mayor comes up dry, the young philosopher Alice Heimann (Anais Demoustier) has arrived at Lyon City Hall from Oxford to take up a job that doesn’t exist anymore, so a new one is created for her: providing the mayor with ideas. Her first note to him is a meditation on modesty, which the mayor loves. But he also suggests that as a leader, you can’t always be modest (because good leaders inspire and need to be visible). This sets the stage for a series of discussions about how abstract ideas — preferably those that can later be reduced to campaign slogans — can be made to fit practical realities that are very complex, with politicians having to constantly compromise with the left and the right while always keeping an eye on how local decisions might influence national politics and careers and vice versa.  

Because Alice and the Mayor is about ideas and about politics, there is, of course, a lot of talking. But Pariser, who counted director Eric Rohmer among his film-school teachers, handles the many dialogue scenes with aplomb, even if there’s a sense that this would work almost as well on the stage or in book form. (The film doesn’t feel particularly cinematic, even if it is very competently made.) Both Luchini and Demoustier (from Pascal Ferran’s Bird People and Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, respectively) are also great at making the dialogue sound natural, and they also tease out the underlying comedy.

While the rapport between the middle-aged Paul and the thirtyish Alice is a fascinating give-and-take — they are essentially equals because one’s lack of experience is compensated for by the other’s lack of ideas — there is no real room for either to grow or be transformed. Their relationship, while full of exchanges, is finally quite stagnant. 

And Pariser doesn’t seem quite sure how to sketch the wider world around his two protagonists, with friends and colleagues floating in and out of the picture in a way that might be lifelike but also keeps creating expectations because they feel like possible setups for storylines that never really emerge or don’t go anywhere.

Out of the tangle of supporting players, the strongest impression is left by former Comedie-Francaise actress Leonie Simaga, as the head of the mayor’s cabinet, and Pascal Reneric, who plays a blue-collar book printer and potential love interest who thinks all politicians are only interested in their careers and are otherwise airheads. While the former might be true, Alice and the Mayor suggests the latter doesn’t need to be the case at all. 

Production companies: Bizibi, Arte France Cinema, Scope Pictures, Les Films du 10
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Anais Demoustier, Nora Hamzawi, Leonie Simaga, Antoine Reinartz, Maud Wyler, Alexandre Steiger, Pascal Reneric, Thomas Portais, Thomas Chabrol 
Writer-director: Nicolas Pariser
Producer: Emmanuel Agneray 
Director of photography: Sebastien Buchmann
Production designer: Wouter Zoon
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Editor: Christel Dewynter
Music: Benjamin Esdraffo
Casting: Youna De Peretti
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Bac Films

In French
105 minutes