The opening minutes of “Alice” make the case for Emilie Piponnier to be a movie star, and the rest of the movie keeps it up. As the eponymous centerpiece of the 2019 SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner, Piponnier dominates every frame, with a mesmerizing screen presence that pushes the drama well beyond its formulaic premise and visible microbudget constraints. Nevertheless, French director Josephine Mackerras’ understated debut operates on the same intimate wavelength as Piponnier’s simmering desperation — and, eventually, her newfound sense of pride — as a woman who becomes a sex worker to support her child. That premise may not change the world, but “Alice” succeeds as a sturdy window into one woman’s quest to take control of her oppressive world. If a festival breakout narrative counts for anything, it should advance the careers of the women on both sides of the camera.
At first, Alice maintains a cozy domestic life with her husband Francois (Benjamin Bourgois) and their young son. But Francois, a struggling writer, shows hints of dissatisfaction over dinner party conversation, and those seeds come to fruition moments later, when he vanishes with all of the money she’s inherited from her mother. In an abrupt exchange with an unsympathetic loan officer, Alice learns the awful truth: Her husband has burned through their finances on a prostitution addiction, leaving her without the proper funds to pay her mortgage. The bank gives her two weeks to figure out a plan.
This urgent and intimate scenario wouldn’t look out of place in the Dardenne brothers’ oeuvre of class-based social-realism. Mackerras lacks the same complex formalism, but her focused script tracks Alice’s descent into working as a sex worker without portraying it in sensationalist terms. The movie provides just enough detail about the patriarchal forces determining Alice’s world to make it clear why she would feel compelled to take such radical action. Calling her mother doesn’t help. “Maybe he just needs some time,” she says, shrugging off Alice’s husband’s action. “Marriage is hard work.” Backed into a corner, Alice contacts an escort service, where she befriends veteran prostitute Vera (Chloe Boreham) and suddenly finds the support system the rest of her world lacks. “You think too much,” Vera says, coaching her new disciple to relax and enjoy the easy money.
Part of the intrigue in “Alice” comes from the way the character discovers that sex work can be less a source of shame than empowerment. Vera lays out the routine: One quick massage, a fake orgasm, and she’s on to the next score. The bulk of her clients are polite, restrained, and mercifully brief. As Vera puts it: “The exchange is fair.” And the experiences allow Alice to explore complex emotions that her husband had repressed in their own household. One encounter with a sobbing American provides a powerful window into the kind of frustrations that Francois has kept hidden from his wife, and when she comes crawling back to her, she has gleaned from her experiences a newfound dominance. “You’re degrading yourself,” he tells her, and she spits back, “I don’t feel degraded.”
Piponnier, whose soft features and wide-eyed determination suggest France’s answer to Carey Mulligan, navigates the movie’s undulating sentiments with striking commitment. Alice has a tendency to react to the shifting stakes of her situation with bursts of anger and sadness paired with the occasional shocked laughter, but she cycles through these responses with such an organic flow that she avoids melodramatic overstatement. She’s matched by the movie’s complex soundtrack, which oscillates from the inquisitive and somber aura of the first act to the more dynamic energy of the later scenes. While “Alice” was shot on the cheap and looks like it, Mackerras often breaks out of the flat visual style with bursts of sun and blue-tinted night scenes as Alice’s situation grows more layered and complex.
The most striking aspect “Alice” involves the way its central character fights to find a support system from every possible angle and comes up empty-handed each time out. The “High Noon” of domestic dramas, Mackerras’ story is peppered with details elaborating on the assumptions that isolate Alice at every turn. “When it comes to society’s morals and ethics, there will always be innocent victims,” she’s told, setting the stage for a galvanizing third act when she decides that she’s been the victim long enough.
“Alice” takes one twist too many in its closing moments, but the concluding imagery obtains the necessary payoff that makes this intimate character study worth the investment. It’s rare to see a minor-key drama that doesn’t overextend the nature of the material, and rarer still for cinema to dig this deep into the female psyche without boxing it in. Curiously, “Alice” was the only non-American film screening in SXSW’s 2019 Narrative Competition, but its triumph at this pivotal U.S. festival feels like a plea for more American movies like it.
“Alice” premiered in the Narrative Competition at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.