Sophomore director Nicolas Pariser follows his politically engaged debut, “The Great Game,” with an even deeper plunge into the disconnect between political theory and the workings of government in the unmistakably French “Alice and the Mayor.” Deeply influenced by Eric Rohmer in the way it aspires to use philosophical dialogue to reveal something about the people behind the talk, Pariser unfortunately tips the conversation scales far into tilt, resulting in a movie so enamored by its self-perception of cleverness that even policy wonks will find it hard to muster enthusiasm. Aside from the pleasures of watching Fabrice Luchini and the winningly fresh-faced Anaïs Demoustier, there’s little to attract interest, especially outside the Republic.
Longtime politico Paul Théraneau (Luchini) is proud of his track record as mayor of Lyon, but he’s lost a sense of intellectual engagement. To kick-start the cerebral juices, his staff hire Alice Heimann (Demoustier), a philosophy teacher recruited from Oxford to feed him ideas. Alice is slightly befuddled by her entry into the halls of government: Her job description is extremely vague, and she’s treated by some as a useful tool, by others as an interloper. The rare minutes in the day when she’s able to chat with the mayor open pathways for stimulating discussions about the role of political parties and how to sharpen left-wing talking points, but his overloaded schedule makes it impossible to have sustained conversations.
At least Paul makes Alice feel valued, though she’s bewildered by the mayor’s nonstop schedule, arranged with dryly impersonal efficiency by his chief of staff, Isabelle Leinsdorf (Léonie Simaga). These scenes are the film’s strong suit, injecting a few squirts of humor into a well-oiled political machine that works around the clock covering an extraordinary amount of ground while never feeling truly committed to any cause. What Pariser also gets right is the clash between Paul’s attachment to politics, his “calling,” and Alice’s approach as an outsider schooled in the philosophy but not the practicalities of power.
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Far less successful is the way he attempts to flesh out Alice’s personality by feebly tossing in side characters who add neither depth nor color, such as her old friend Gauthier (Alexandre Steiger), his absurd caricature of a wife Délphine (Maud Wyler) and Xavier (Pascal Rénéric), a printer whose appreciation of traditional lithography methods intrigues Alice enough to sleep with him. Also wasted is Nora Hamzawi (“Non-Fiction”), channeling Tina Fey in her portrayal of Mélinda, an undefined member of the mayor’s team who adds touches of humor and cries out for more screen time. It’s apparent Pariser wrote these in as a means to balance overlong discussions about the nature of politics, but clearly his interest is limited to explorations of political theory versus actual governance.
Not that the subject is without interest. On the contrary, there are moments when it feels almost bracing to hear a reasonably intelligent discussion of how to recapture the left’s squandered opportunities for making a real difference. But the verbal parrying becomes wearisome, overly scripted in the way it leads to the inevitable conclusion that talking points are merely the stepping stones to holding power rather than the foundation for change. In addition, the number of recent French features about politicians, including “The French Minister,” “The Minister,” and even “Haute Cuisine,” all undeniably different, have compromised this one’s freshness.
Far more satisfaction is found, unsurprisingly, in Luchini’s performance as the flawed yet sympathetic mayor who’s been a politician under the guidance of his staff for so long that the genuine idealism that took him into governance has become more platform than conviction. He can’t change who he’s become, and even though he really would like Alice to help him out of his feelings of inertia, he’s past the ability to see the world with her clear-sighted eyes. It’s nice to learn that cinephile Pariser shot “Alice” on 35mm, yet while the visuals have a tonal richness, this isn’t a feature that film champions will be holding up to extol the superiority of analog.