In Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour,” a housewife slips out during the day to an elite brothel, where she’s able to explore kinky fantasies she wouldn’t dare suggest to her husband. It’s one of the most daring films ever made, not so much because of anything it overtly depicts as what this controversial classic reveals about the infinitely complicated psychology of human sexuality.
Director Josephine Mackerras’ “Alice” shares that rebel spirit, thrusting its demure leading lady into some of those same shadows. But unlike Catherine Deneuve’s masochistic character, young married mother Alice Ferrand (innocent, fragile-looking Emilie Piponnier) isn’t trying to feed any particular fetish when she starts work for a high-class Paris brothel. Rather, she discovers this hidden world quite by accident the day her credit cards stop working, after calling phone numbers she finds among her husband’s private records. She agrees to become an escort since it’s the only way to quickly raise the money needed to save the apartment she calls home.
A truly independent debut, shot in Paris outside the system (sans permits or institutional support), “Alice” came out of nowhere to win the top prize at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Such accolades aside, it’s less a fully realized study of a naive wife’s brusque awakening than a thinly sketched tale of female empowerment, pushing an unconvincing sex-positive agenda in which prostitution is a reasonable, relatively worry-free shortcut to financial emancipation.
That’s not to say that such activity can’t be liberating, even if cinema has traditionally taken a moralistic stand against it. Coming from a more open-minded place, “Alice” aligns with certain timely political talking points — given its #MeToo-aligned patriarchal critique, nonjudgmental attitude toward sex work and key female representation on both sides of the camera — but ultimately falls short of making such an extreme solution feel believable. Then again, plausibility only matters insofar as the film’s “realistic” handheld style is meant to convey a sense of vérité.
Approach it as a simplistic fable or novella-like look at one woman’s ironic triumph over infidelity and deceit (betrayed by her husband’s philandering ways, she finds agency and independence in becoming the very thing he craved), and it’s a sleek, efficient piece of storytelling, astonishingly well acted by its two little-known leads. In that sense, “Alice” resembles “Belle de Jour” less than it does Stanley Kubrick’s hermetically hypothetical sexual fantasia “Eyes Wide Shut,” only this time, the genders are reversed, and it’s Alice who’s stepping out on her husband.
The movie opens like a mystery, laying out a seemingly perfect marriage between Alice and her suave, super-attentive husband, François (Martin Swabey). The first few scenes are blissful enough, going some way to explain why Alice should fail to suspect that the blond, boyish-looking charmer she married is burning through their mutual bank account behind her back. He has some kind of erotic compulsion, the motives of which don’t necessarily interest Mackerras, who also omits any moment in which Alice might suspect her husband.
She’s blindsided by the realization that he’s racked up nearly 70,000 euros in debt, borrowing against the mortgage on an apartment that was supposed to be her inheritance. Mackerras makes some easy but effective points about how the system enables male misbehavior in a phone call between Alice and her mother, who has the nerve to suggest, “Maybe he felt something wasn’t working at home.”
In taking the implausible leap to become a prostitute — on her own terms, of course — Alice may as well be launching a direct assault on the madonna-whore double-standard that destroyed her marriage: François failed to recognize her true potential as a sexual partner, whereas wealthy clients are lining up for a session with this demure, endearingly awkward newbie. It’s no act, either. Alice is obliged to find a babysitter each time she goes out, and she’s so clumsy that her first encounters fall somewhere between pathetic and comedic.
There’s nothing particularly sexy about the hotel sessions Mackerras depicts, in which Alice maintains her lingerie while nude men with droopy, pasty skin make clear that she’s not doing this for her own pleasure. Others might, as seems to be the case for Lisa (Chloé Boreham), the fellow escort who shows her the ropes. Everything looks a little too safe in “Alice’s” depiction of sex work, and maybe it is with a certain level of clientele — although “Hustlers” painted a very different picture of the kind of sick entitlement some rich guys bring to the table. These liaisons are about power, and through Lisa’s lessons, Alice learns how she can be the boss in these situations.
After a disappearance of several days, François reappears in Alice’s life. He begs for forgiveness, but the dynamic between them can’t go back to the way it was. Both Piponnier and Swabey bring an almost childlike quality to their performances: At first glance, they don’t seem nearly mature enough to be married, and yet, as they enter into this challenging, completely unforeseen chapter in their relationship, we see him devolve (sobbing, petulant, infantile) and her bloom as never before.
Piponnier has wonderful big brown eyes, which convey through subtle moves the insecurity and excitement that come with her transgressive new path. It’s here, through those windows, that we glimpse a fragment of that “Belle de Jour” subversiveness. “Alice” is over too soon, with an ending that feels rushed and unearned, avoiding virtually all the conflict that the movie’s premise promises. But keep in mind that Mackerras, who is Australian, chose to tackle such a risky film in a foreign country on her own terms, and cutting a few corners to get it made is part of the fantasy she’s selling.