Alice (2019)

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“You know how to do this. You have been doing it your whole life. You have been trained to scan people’s emotions. To know what to say, how to behave, how to please everyone. Take control, Sophia.”

So says Lisa (Chloé Boreham), a Francophone New Zealander living in Paris and making her substantial living as a high-end escort. Her addressee, who is just taking her first tentative steps into this world, is not really called Sophia – that is her adopted working name. Rather she is Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier), a young bourgeois mother who, like her namesake from Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, is finding her way through a strange land of wonder that reflects and inverts all her normal values. Accordingly writer/director Josephine Mackerras’ Alice might seem to be setting up shop in the same house as Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie, 2013) – except that Alice is neither a frigid woman on a quest for sexual fulfilment, nor a seventeen-year-old engaged in adolescent experimentation. Rather, Alice has been forced into prostitution, like most women, by economic circumstance, even if she brings to her new rôle as much agency as possible. For the first time in her life, she is emerging from disempowerment and gaining control.

From the film’s opening scene we can discern imbalance in Alice’s domestic set-up. She is struggling to juggle cooking and looking after her demanding young son Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras) – both duties expected of her, despite the fact that she, no less than her husband François (Martin Swabey), has a day job. When Alice agrees on the phone to pick up wine for a friend on the way to a dinner party, François tells her that she should learn to say ‘no’ – but he had just ignored her saying that very word when he helped himself and Jules to the chocolate that she is preparing. Alice plays the loving, compliant housewife to perfection, but when François heads off to have a shower, leaving her once again to look after Jules while doing the cooking, we see Alice’s smile crack just a little, and hear the hint of sarcasm in her ‘thanks’.    

François is frustrated – not just in his aspirations to be a writer, which have never come to anything, but also in his sexual drives, despite having a wife who is loving and as available as the mother of a young child can be. One morning, he heads off for work as usual, but does not return – and an increasingly frantic Alice discovers that he has cleared out their joint bank accounts, having secretly stopped paying their mortgage a year ago. Alice is now not only in effect a single mother, but is insolvent and facing the impending foreclosure of their apartment. On top of all this, she discovers that François has been spending all their joint earnings on Elegant Escorts. Her investigation into this group leads her, almost by accident, to be signed up – and after getting through her first (amusingly) awkward appointment, she realises that this work is after all not so different from what she was doing previously, only with more free time, greater profit, and all conducted very much more on her own terms. For the first time, she is in a position where she is the boss, and can say no.

Alice is a film about a woman’s journey from domestic servitude to liberation. It also offers a refreshing perspective on prostitution from the sex worker’s point of view, even as it notes in passing the very real differences, in terms of both earnings and treatment, between the profession’s high and low ends. Mackerras’s film never allows itself to fall for that cliché of male fantasy, the ‘happy hooker’. Lisa and Alice are content in their work not because of the sex – which they view as entirely transactional, as pure business – but because of the money that they make from it and the independence which that affords them. Alice is now engaging with sad, lonely, philandering men on a daily basis – but the only one that causes her real problems is her own husband, now returned and seeking to take back what he regards as his. As in the opening scene, every moment that Alice spends with François is marked by a hypocritical double standard and a starkly gendered inequality, both domestic and also societal – but the film also shows a woman reversing that imbalance and insisting on getting her end of the bargain. 

“I can’t pretend,” Alice tells François, who is now back in the apartment and trying to reassert normalcy, “I’m not your whore.” In the end, though, she will pretend – will do what she has been doing all her life, knowing what to say, how to behave – to please this pathetic patriarch. And in so doing, she will retake control, and find a way to fulfil her dream (one that does not involve either her husband, or indeed prostitution). Piponnier offers one of those versatile performances where we get to see an actress performing multiple rôles expected of women by men, while slyly subverting them to her best advantage. Meanwhile the film, unfolding in a plain style, exposes the sexual politics of the present, while imagining a future where the next generation of men (like Alice’s young son Jules) may be raised on a different model of their gender. Ultimately our heroine will reclaim her own identity while stripping away everything toxic from it and answering to nobody but herself – and so the film is called Alice rather than Sophia or indeed Alice Ferrand.

Summary: Josephine Mackerras’ feature debut shows a mistreated mother rediscovering herself through the oldest profession

Anton Bitel