Cinephilia

Review: Alice

Writer/director Josephine Mackerras makes her feature film debut with Alice, the story of a woman who discovers her husband’s obsession with a high-end escort service only to be drawn into the elicit business when he leaves her with a debt that threatens to evict her from her home. Despite a tonal shift after the first third and a too-clean depiction of the realities of sex work, Mackerras delivers a promising, female-centric contemporary character study with a stunning performance by Emilie Piponnier at its center.

All is relatively idyllic for Alice when we meet her on a normal weekday evening; she’s preparing dinner in her Paris apartment with her adorable toddler, Jules, pestering her for treats. Husband François (Martin Swabey) comes home, every bit the doting husband and father. At a dinner party with friends, François recites poetry and charmingly seduces everyone in the room, Alice included. They seem to be living a happy, unassuming life as a young, upwardly mobile couple in the city.

That all changes when Alice’s credit cards are refused while she’s out running errands; François has disappeared without a trace, and taking all their money with him. What’s worse, Alice soon learns that her husband has been behind on mortgage payments for over a year, meaning if she doesn’t come up with a large loan payment quickly, she and her son will not only be abandoned, they’ll be homeless. Desperate to find out where François has disappeared to, Alice rummages through his things and finds a few anonymous phone numbers; one is to a high-end escort service he’d been frequenting. The woman on the other end of the phone won’t tell her how much they charge, but she does share that they’re holding “auditions” where Alice can learn more about the work and how much she’d earn.

And this is where Mackerras navigates a curious turn in events that the first act of the film doesn’t really elude to: Alice decides to attend the open casting call and actually goes through with becoming an escort. She’s desperate to come up with a lot of money quickly and also, it soon becomes clear, to assert some agency on the direction of a life that’s long been determined by others. The work—meeting mostly non-threatening business men in four-star hotels for a massage-turned-quickie—is, we’re led to believe, in fact quite liberating. Lisa (Chloé Boreham), a fellow escort, helps with the a few tricks of the trade (how to discretely hide a condom in your mouth so it’s ready when the time’s right, for example) and reminds Alice that, in the end, she’s in control of the encounter and can make it as meaningful (or meaningless) as she needs it to be.

As Alice learns the ropes of her new profession, she’s still dealing with the stress of a philandering, emotionally stunted husband and the eviction that’s possible at a moment’s notice. Piponnier carries it all impressively well, her performance evolving as her character does; as she and Lisa become closer friends, Alice finds more of her own voice thanks to Lisa’s support and guidance. And certainly, every time François comes groveling back, it’s refreshing to see Alice stand up for herself and her son rather than give in to his simpering pleas for forgiveness. It’s all an impressive, welcome exploration of female independence—sexual, familial, financial, you name it. Mackerras doesn’t shy away from the double standard in prostitution, either; a subplot involving a potential separation and custody battle brings up frustratingly archaic notions of the difference between a man frequenting sex workers and a woman being one.

There are glimpses into Alice’s work, too; her first gig plays as part heartbreaking, part comical. It’s odd to be laughing at the moment, but it’s also a bit silly, the way she fumbles the exchange of money and awkwardly tries to seduce her client. Other encounters play out a more smoothly, and this may be Mackerras’s biggest weakness: an unwillingness to infuse her protagonist’s chosen profession with the grittiness it actually entails. Sex work can (and some would argue should) be a woman’s path to financial and sexual liberation—her body, her choice. But there’s also plenty that’s unattractive (or at least less glamorous) about the work; all of Alice’s clients are attractive white men with vanilla kinks that wouldn’t so much as make their mothers blush.

Where first films are concerned, this one is nothing if not promising. Mackerras proves herself a confident storyteller, creating a central character that is realistically multi-dimensional—a mother, a wife, a woman with ambitions, needs and dreams realized beautifully by Piponnier. If Alice the film could benefit from anything, it would be a deeper, more visceral dive into Alice the character’s chosen profession.

Alice is now streaming via Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema; a portion of your rental goes to support the theater.

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