I’ve saved my final SXSW review for the Grand Jury winner Alice, a stunning piece of French cinema written and directed by Josephine Mackerras, who I had the pleasure of speaking to after the premiere. Though I wish I had a recorder with me to officially document our conversation, I do recall a comment I made that struck Mackerras’ attention: despite this film being about female empowerment and awakening, it never once judges its male characters.
This is one of Alice’s greatest strengths, for it never takes the easy route in characterization and plot. Rather, we are given opportunities time and time again to simply spend time with its people, as if a fly on the wall.
The first act of Alice feels like it came straight out of a Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne masterpiece. We are first greeted to a normal everyday family situation that is easy to empathize with. Alice (Emilie Piponnier) is married to Francois (Martin Swabey), taking care of their little son. They live in a small apartment together, and things seem to be going swimmingly well. Then everything changes when Alice’s credit card is declined. With one shocking revelation after another, Alice quickly learns that Francois’ appalling behavior is leading them to an imminent foreclosure. Forced to take matters in her own hands, Alice accepts a job as an escort.
Emilie Piponnier is the New Marion Cotillard
In the first 30 minutes alone, Mackerras and Piponnier together demonstrate their talent in capturing raw panic, anxiety, and helplessness in the moment. In all the right ways, it draws parallels to Marion Cotillard’s character learning she lost her job in Two Days, One Night. And just like Two Days, One Night, Mackerras’ Alice is a film that completely relies on its female star. Piponnier not only brings a startling revelation to her Alice, but she proves throughout the film’s runtime that she inherits a dynamic range of emotions; even the great Cotillard herself has competition now. Piponnier is destined to be a movie star.
You’d be Surprised Where the Film Goes
For a story about a woman who resorts to being an escort to financially take care of her son, Alice could easily fall into heavy, depressing territory. It could easily just be about how Alice is a victim, where she’s always suffering and helpless, all due to the actions of her husband. But this is where Mackerras surprises.
Alice’s morally complex ideas wouldn’t work without Mackerras’ thoughtful decisions. Alice meets and becomes friends with fellow escort Lisa (Chloé Boreham), who helps her understand the equal benefits between man and woman when sex is transactional. Most of all, the film shows equal sympathy to Alice’s male customers, going back to my initial comment about how it does not judge its characters. None of them mistreat our protagonist. Rather, they are polite, if not awkward or troubled men. These scenes not only show how Mackerras can juggle conflicting tones with entertaining results, but they provide a rare sense of double empathy.
Morally Complicated Yet Brave and Thoughtful
Alice may be focused on its titular character’s journey and self-discovery, but it’s also about the people around her and the society she lives in, that we live in. Though we root for her to find her happiness, the film gets there by exploring many topics that are easily deemed taboo or uncomfortable to talk about.
At times, between Alice and Lisa, the script dips its feet into the morality behind making money from sex, with the latter not being a fan of sharing the same job description as prostitutes and victims of human trafficking. Would you say high-end escorts are the same?
Furthermore, there was always a thought that lingered in my mind. Being a man, looking at Alice through a male lens, I could not help but wonder if only women like Lisa and Alice can make high end money out of this business, while a man like Francois cannot. Hearing Mackerras herself confirm to me that yes, she is flirting with female privilege, only elevated my respect for her as a brave filmmaker who’s willing to explore both ends of a spectrum, where no answer is 100% morally right or wrong.
Alice: Empowering for Women, Enlightening for Everyone
This is a story of a woman who finds herself cornered several times by the people around her. Yet, it is also at her lowest point that she eventually finds her voice, newfound responsibility, and dominance. Alice is a brave, morally complicated tale that rests on Emilie Piponnier’s organic performance and Josephine Mackerras’ brave writing and direction.
It shows Alice as a victim without ever being sensationalist. It shows female empowerment without ever being degrading elsewhere. It’s a film that understands its subject matter is morally complex, which is why we need to openly discuss more about it.
Alice is a film that should enlighten anybody, because it’s about society as much as it is about Alice herself.
Did you see Alice at SXSW? What did you think of the film? Share below!
Alice will be released virtually on May 15, with proceeds from every ticket purchase going directly to supporting local indie theaters. It will be released on TVOD on August 4.
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