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"Alice": Charming French Indie Film Challenges Views On Sex Work

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Is there a sight more disquieting in a film than a happy family? When a man, a woman, and a cute child go around their morning routine with absent-minded contentment, you know something awful is creeping around the corner. It could be an apocalyptic event, flesh-eating zombies, or hidden personal faults about to bring the whole setup down. This last possibility is the most disturbing because it is the most plausible to strike the viewer. Relating to a character facing a relationship-extinction level betrayal is a shorter leap than someone chased by a flesh-eating ghoul. After all, this is Art House fare and not a classic horror film.

The happy family on the verge of destruction belongs to Alice (Emilie Pipponier). She is a devoted mother to little Jules (Jules Milo Levy) and a supporting wife for Francois (Martin Swabey). He is a business administrator with vague literary ambitions. At a dinner party with friends, he looks haunted when someone inquires about his ever-in-process novel. It is the first sign of trouble ahead. The chickens come home to roost soon enough. Alice gets her credit card declined at a pharmacy. Soon, she discovers all her accounts are depleted. Their cozy apartment is about to go into foreclosure after a year of missed payments.

The money is gone, including Alice’s nest egg of 90 thousand euros. What happened? Well, Francois is a sex addict with a habit of hiring high-end escorts. That much she gathers upon finding their credit card records on the family computers. He disappears and does not pick up the phone. Alice is alone and has 30 days to make a substantial payment that can stave off homelessness. Her part-time job as an office assistant will not bring in enough dough. How to make money fast? The oldest profession in history beckons.

Alice is Josephine Mackerras’ feature film debut - she previously produced four shorts -. The script crystalizes changes in social mores towards prostitution. Progressive politics recognize sex work as work, that is, legit labor in which people can engage out of their own volition. Gone are the days when sex workers would automatically be considered victims of human trafficking or exploitation. Alas, it would be naive to suggest the stigma around it is gone for good, and Mackerras does not fall into that trap.

Alice gets into "the life" sideways. First, she wants to understand how her marriage collapsed. She already has the number of her hubby's favorite agency and calls to find out how much their services cost. The manager who answers declines to give such information, but thinking Alice wants a job, she invites her to a meeting. When she gets a call-back to join the agency, she hesitantly agrees. After all, it is one way to get her money back. And that mortgage is not going to pay itself. She gets advice and nonjudgmental friendship from fellow escort Lisa (Chloé Boreham).

Piponnier hits the right note of physical comedy and pathos as she entertains her first client (Philip de Monts). You can see how a lesser movie would go broader, but Mackerras aims to portray the potential ridiculousness of the situation without diminishing the emotional stakes. Piponnier’s big, expressive eyes and low-key clunkiness defuse the tension. She is like a sensual but still innocent Amélie. Further encounters bring more shades to the power dynamic, including a tense rendezvous with an elderly American (Robert Burns).

Alice works at a high-end provider of escorts for thoroughly screened clients. The gigs occur in upscale hotels, following a procedure: she says hello, gets the money upfront, calls the agency to report, changes into something more comfortable - alright, it’s lingerie - and proceeds to offer a massage. Once in bed, intercourse takes place. “If you do your job right, it never takes long,” says Lisa. “You are the boss.”. Taking pleasure from somebody else’s body is a means to an end: surrendering control.

Like the recent HBO Max series “The White Lotus,” Alice offers a matter-of-fact consideration of sex work.

The process and the rigid control might account for the safety of the encounters. Any dread we might feel comes from being conditioned by decades of consuming narratives where the fallen woman is punished metaphorically or physically for selling her body. We are far from movies that play up the potential for victimization and violence. Take Leaving Las Vegas (1995), where (spoiler alert) the female protagonist suffers a gang rape at the hands of fraternity hoodlums. Like the recent HBO Max series “The White Lotus,” Alice offers a matter-of-fact consideration of sex work. Our heroine is the spiritual sister to Lucia (Sofia Tabasco) and Isabella (Eleonora Romandini), the only two characters that remain true to themselves and achieve something closer to a happy ending in the sunny Sicily-bound second season. There is no agenda to prop up the dangers. Prostitution is like any other occupation.

Alas, prejudices very much come into play. The catalyst for conflict happens to be the avatar of traditional family values. An apologetic Francois reappears, begging for forgiveness. The newly empowered and self-assured Alice is not ready to give in, but he comes in handy to babysit when a gig suddenly comes up. When the hubby finds out what she is doing for money, he holds the knowledge like a weapon: take him back or lose custody of her kid. “The court will see a father who is the manager of a reputable company. On the other hand, a mother who prostitutes herself” warns a family attorney who conveniently has required her services in the past. If there is a foe here, it is society’s hypocrisy.

Mackerras may tie the bow too neatly, with an ambiguous ending that partly diffuses the pro-sex work stance. Still, there is true ingenuity in how she works around the constrictions of low budget movies. Paris may feel a little barren, but the emphasis resides in intimate spaces: the cramped apartment they call home or the impersonal simulacrum of intimacy in a hotel room. Indie films from France seldom make it to our screens. Take a break from Art House film and Hollywood-on-the-Seine action exercises with this scrappy and smart character study. The movie won the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature at the SXSW 2019 Film Festival.

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