'Fidelio: Alice's Journey' ('Fidelio: L'odyssee d'Alice'): Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno
Promising debut navigates the hazardous crosscurrents of work, love, sex and gender

Lucie Borleteau's globe-trotting romantic drama premiered at the Swiss festival, winning Best Actress for Ariane Labed

High passions on the high seas propel Fidelio: Alice's Journey (Fidelio: L'odyssee d'Alice), one of the more accessibly mainstream world premieres at Locarno this year. Built four-square around Ariane Labed's engaging turn as eponymous sailor Alice, this feature debut from actress-turned-writer-director Lucie Borleteau strikes a delicate balance between the sensual and the matter-of-fact.

Labed's Best Actress prize in Switzerland, to add to her similar gong for the much edgier Attenberg in Venice four years ago, will boost both the Greece-born performer's rising international status and box-office prospects for French production Fidelio at home and abroad. Juggling romantic, dramatic and melodramatic elements against an unusual nautical backdrop, Borleteau shows sufficient ambition to ensure a fair wind of critical support.

Even her title hints at wide-ranging cultural depths, combining as it does Beethoven, Homer and Lewis Carroll. And there's also a nod towards Antonioni via the detail that the much-traveled freighter Fidelio was previously known as the Eclipse, back when Alice (Labed) first served aboard in her earliest days below decks. But Borleteau's screenplay, co-written with Clara Bourreau, proves sufficiently watertight to proceed under its own creative steam and to withstand the tempests of some credibility-straining third-act developments.

Stated baldly, Fidelio deals with fidelity: both in terms of individuals' commitment to their partners, and also to their own ideals. Alice seems happily settled with her landlubbing nice guy, Norwegian boyfriend Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie), even though the nature of her job — she's a ship's mechanic — means they are often physically apart for months on end. And while the wonders of Skype provide a measure of consoling "face time," it soon becomes apparent that Alice operates by the maritime maxim "what happens at sea stays at sea."

Joining the crew of the Fidelio to replace the recently deceased Patrick, she's startled to discover that the Captain is dishy old flame Gael (Melvil Poupaud). Romantic and professional complications duly ensue, an extra dimension of psychological intricacy added when Alice happens across Patrick's diaries (read in voiceover by Luc Catania), and contrasts his solitary private life with her own uninhibited explorations of sexuality. 

Feminist aspects of Fidelio are present if unstressed, Borleteau mostly avoiding the cliches of the woman-in-a-man's-world subgenre to explore, in tandem with the ever-game Labed, the universe of her proudly independent, self-confident heroine ("I'll never be a normal girl," she assures the perplexedly conventional Gael). Frank in its depiction of bedroom shenanigans, but discreet in its coital cuts, the film presents a convincingly detailed panorama of work, rest and play in the artificial, enclosed environment of the merchant marine.

In this aspect it recalls another recent Francophone picture named after an oceangoing vessel, Frederick Pelletier's underappreciated Quebecois production Diego Star (2013), although Borleteau and Bourreau are much less concerned with analyzing issues of exploitation and managerial dereliction.

The latter does pop up in the closing stages, competing for attention with a somewhat clunkily handled imperilment of Alice and Felix's relationship. By this stage, however, Borleteau and her collaborators have done more than enough to retain audience interest and sympathy, cinematographer Simon Beaufils' 2.35:1 widescreen compositions encompassing intimate cabin close-ups and two-shots along with suitably exhilarating vistas for fleet glimpses of distant foreign shores.

Production companies: Apsara, Why Not
Cast: Ariane Labed, Melville Poupaud, Anders Danielsen Lie, Nathanael Maini, Bogdan Zamfir, Jan Priva, Luc Catania

Director: Lucie Borleteau
Screenwriters: Lucie Borleteau, Clara Bourreau (collaborator: Mathilde Boisseleau)
Producers: Marine Arrighi de Casanova, Pascal Caucheteux
Cinematographer: Simon Beaufils
Production designer: Sidney Dubois
Costume designer: Sophie Begon
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Composer: Thomas de Pourquery
Sales: Why Not, Paris

No Rating, 95 minutes