Easily the most fascinating film to come along and challenge traditional gender roles in the past year, “Fidelio: Alice’s Journey” chronicles a sexually liberated female sailor’s voyage of self-discovery aboard an old freighter, where she fights for respect among the randy crew — including the handsome captain, with whom she shares a romantic past — while her faithful partner anxiously awaits her return. Anchored by a courageous lead performance and steered by a fresh-voiced distaff helmer showing impressive command of both atmosphere and subtext, Lucie Borleteau’s emotionally complex, logistically daunting debut should find receptive berth among discriminating fests and specialty venues.
Likened by her landlocked lover, Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie), to a mermaid at several points, Alice (Ariane Labed) seems to become a different person when at sea. The Alice he knows is passionate and attentive, almost girlishly smitten with her man. Then duty calls, intruding upon their idyll as Alice is drawn to the ocean, where she must toughen her skin in order to survive for weeks at a time as the lone female assigned to a vast cargo ship called the Fidelio — whose none-too-subtle allusions to faithfulness are not only central to Borleteau’s examination, but also echoed by a diary she finds in her cabin.
The journal belongs to the aging vessel’s previous engineer, whom Alice has been called in to replace. Reading her predecessor’s most intimate (and frequently carnal) confessions, she takes her post as a marine mechanic amid so many sex-starved men, fending off their snide jokes and inappropriate advances from the moment she steps aboard. And yet, being a mature, 30-year-old woman, and French, she reserves the right to engage with her colleagues without that meaning they are suddenly entitled to objectify her. Naturally, this makes for a complex work environment — especially since the Fidelio’s captain, Gael (Melvil Poupaud), is someone she hooked up with years earlier as a cadet.
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Inviting an air of mystery into this foreign, blue-collar world, where human characters are dwarfed by massive machinery and accidents can have fatal consequences, Borleteau constructs the film’s interpersonal dynamics more from body language than from explicitly spoken dialogue. Besides, both the boat and the ocean supply commotion enough, from the constant white-noise churn of waves below to the low, steady rumble of the engines, faithfully reproduced in the robust sound design, which completes the almost documentary illusion that this elegantly lensed widescreen pic was shot at sea.
The film itself was launched at the Locarno Film Festival, which favors projects whose artistic sensibilities tend to flounder in the commercial marketplace. “Fidelio” happens to be more accessible than most, but could still prove challenging beyond its native France, where it was released to generally positive reviews the day before Christmas. In the absence of eloquent interpersonal interactions (complicated enough by the conflicting languages spoken by the ship’s crew), audiences must pay careful attention to subtle cues: Alice is outgoing and openly flirtatious with her colleagues, but icy at first toward Gael. In short order, however, that awkwardness melts to reveal a vulnerable woman still quite conflicted about the memory of the attraction they once shared — and rightfully wary of how it could threaten the good thing she has back home.
Like her male colleagues, she’s susceptible to loneliness when away from port for too long — more than that, for the film unabashedly acknowledges that her yearning is sexual. Watching “Fidelio,” it’s hard not to remark how seldom contemporary filmmakers allow women to be the proactive agents of desire. As a narrative creation, Alice doesn’t exist merely to excite male characters. We experience the movie through her eyes, juggling the temptations put before her, pining for the partner she left behind and dealing with the consequences of her actions, all running parallel to her unique professional activities. It’s a refreshing depiction set in a truly unique setting. While the demands of shooting aboard a ship were no doubt great, so, too, are its rewards.