Alice – Film Review
Alice offers a riveting, modern-day interpretation of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as a bored housewife who becomes embroiled in a world of escort services. But Alice differs to Belle de Jour due to its refreshing take on a strong female friendship at its core and an initially unwilling housewife entering such world directed under a female gaze. Mesmerisingly shot, this feature debut from Josephine Mackerras, as a winner of the Spirit of the Festival award at the 2019 Raindance film festival, is emotionally charged and will keep its audience wanting more of its authentic, messily gripping storyline. Alice charts its eponymous protagonist’s discovery of marital infidelity, wanton spending and a journey of self-identity after her husband, François, unexpectedly disappears leaving their family financial affairs close to bankruptcy.
Mackerras’ vision within Alice uniquely delivers an emotionally tense atmosphere from the outset using unstable, handheld images and so there is always that unsettling sensation despite the apparent domestic bliss. Whilst the film is not autobiographical in nature Mackerras, impressively, whilst having to operate within the confines of a low budget, used her own apartment in Paris as a filming location and the cute little boy, who becomes the subject of the emotional turmoil between Alice and her estranged husband, is indeed Mackerras’ own son.
The depiction within Alice is a sensitive one and Mackerras mentioned undertaking research for several years about women who were high class escorts. Such world is, expectedly, very discrete and therefore Alice draws that distinction, interestingly, between ‘high end’ escorts and women subjected to sex trafficking. Whilst this is not a central theme within Alice, it is an intriguing concept under Mackerras’ gaze and it is captured within the film’s exploration of society’s judgements and prejudice towards those women.
Emilie Piponnier as Alice delivers a tour de force performance under Mackerras’ gaze. She is directed with such precision that her presence envelops and lingers on the screen. Piponnier captivates and titillates on the screen and is a beguiling watch. As Alice, her transformation extends beyond merely putting on some red lipstick to develop the confidence to contend with the daily pressures encountered following François’ disappearance. What is unveiled, is an empathetic but formidable portrayal of a woman learning to become resilient and having that inner strength to face adversity. It is an amazingly convincing portrayal to watch, at times uncomfortable, but surprisingly injects humour into some of the bedroom antics.
Mackerras deliberately chooses not to focus on the day to day transactions in the life of an escort and so there are the time pressures and the unpredictable nature of appointments depicted which add to the turmoil encountered by Alice. Under a female director, there is no objectification of a woman’s body within the escort world with the focus remaining on the forging of a strong friendship. It is delightful to be immersed within the carefree world of Alice and Lisa as they go on bike rides and boat rides and explore Paris. The support and camaraderie between the two women ensure that Alice avoids being bleak in its subject matter. Equally, it is pleasing to note that their roles are not reduced to being one dimensional despite the nature of their work and the continued presence of overbearing men and the patriarchy.
The portrayal of marital breakdown between Alice and François is another aspect that Mackerras refuses to compromise on and as such it is unflinching. The close ups mean that there is no escape for the audience from the unfolding heartbreak and the authentic intensity felt; the panning of the camera continues to ratchet up the unsettling sensation. But it is also riveting, in a voyeuristic way, to watch the persona of an overbearing husband unravel, who still believes that the mere utterance of ‘I miss you’ will resolve all! In some ways it feels unbearable to witness these levels of emotional devastation, but the strength of the performances means that it is equally difficult to turn away. It is so compelling!
Again, Mackerras’ skilful direction ensures that these elements of male fragility are depicted sensitively in contrast to the main theme of strong, female friendship and female empowerment. Where the film may feel uneven in tone, and as though it does not work quite so well however, is concerning the exaggerated personas of the male clientele that Alice meets. Such scenes do connect, however, to that underlying concept of male fragility and toxic behaviour given the environment in which they meet Alice. Equally, there are some comedic elements in such moments providing much-needed light relief.
Within Alice, the cinematography is striking in its depiction of the different worlds that Alice inhabits. There are the vivid pinks and leopard print patterns seen within the various hotels visited evoking that sense of seediness, which may be a parody of other films in such genre with a boudoir type décor. There is a clear, white light and nature within the scenes of Alice and Lisa, which may be associated with that honesty between them. However, it is the blue hues within the nighttime scenes when Alice is asleep or attempting to sleep that are truly captivating. The entire screen becomes bathed in these blue, soothing tones and will immerse the audience completely. My advice would be to let yourself become hypnotised by such stunning blue, visual effects and experience the full range of emotions that it encourages whilst watching Piponnier’s magnetising, visceral performance.
Surprisingly, this is Piponnier’s first leading role and her performance is such a tour de force under Mackerras’ direction which elevates the film to add something new to the genre. Alice is a must-see film on the strength of Piponnier’s performance. The chemistry between Piponnier and Martin Swabey as François sizzles on the screen especially during those emotionally wrought moments with the instability of the camera work adding to the tension. Chloé Boreham as Lisa provides that voice of pragmatism, as Alice’s sole friend, but also that sense of new hope within this emotionally driven tale. Boreham is also Australian similar to Mackerras which is another personal connection embedded within Mackerras’ direction.
Simply put, Alice is one to watch and as a feature debut it is astonishingly impressive in its ability to draw the audience into Alice’s world through emotion and humour. It is unsurprising that Alice won several festival awards before its UK release, but it is a film that deserves to be watched by larger audiences. Mackerras seems to be another director to place on the radar for future projects after her engrossing work and vision seen within Alice.
Alice has now been released in the UK directly on selected digital platforms such as Curzon Home Cinema. There is also a virtual cinema release through Eureka Entertainment’s website.