Alice 2019 ****

French cinema was on something of a high as the pandemic struck with a succession of strong films like Les Miserables, Lullaby, Who You Think I Am and Non-Fiction; this debut film from Josephine Mackerras adds to the pile of worthies, a compelling story of a single mother who embarks on a career as an escort girl to pay the bills. It’s the kind of story which could play crassly in the wrong hands, but Mackerras brings something new to the party with her tight focus on the feelings of Alice (Emilie Piponnier).

Alice has a partner François (Martin Swabey), who gulps down alcohol before he goes to his office job, while Alice is left at home with their son.  François has a few secrets; he’s been syphoning off the cash that was earmarked for the mortgage, and spending it on high-end call girls. Alice is in denial when her credit cards are frozen; the bank manager calls her in, and selling sex in her spare time seems to be her only option. But baby-sitting is an issue, and Alice reluctantly allows Francois back into their domestic life due to her need for a safe pair of hands with her son. Meanwhile, Alice’s mother blames her for not satisfying her wayward husband.

Filming in the director’s own flat, and with her son playing Alice’s little boy, this strategy  suggests a certain investment with the central character. Some will be disappointed where the film does not go; this is not a cautionary tale, nor is it a no-holds barred expose of escort agencies. In fact, although Alice goes through some kind of liberation, Mackerras is more concerned with her protagonist’s freedom from her partner, and the subject of her film is how Alice wrestles with male hypocrisy; Francois makes use of prostitutes himself, but seeks to use his wife’s new profession as basis for a child custody suit.

Alice builds to a satisfying, logical ending, while dodging a number of questions about Alice’s work, which is presented as dull and unthreatening. Viewed through the prism of a pandemic and worldwide recession, there’s something surprising about a film that seems to see prostitution as a positive career move, but it’s probably best to shrug our shoulders and say, how French. But Alice is a fresh and original film, well-acted and bright in attitude. And the target, of male vanity and control, is the right one; attention is correctly focused on race issues right now, but women have had to accept second-class citizenship on a permanent basis. Alice may not know much about sex, but she learns to understand oppression, and that what gives this film a charge in terms of sexual politics.

Alice is released on July 24th 2020 in the UK. Link below.


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