Movie Review: Alice (2019)
I can’t remember the last time I was as angry at a movie character as I was at Francois Ferrand (Martin Swabey), the husband of Alice, while watching Josephine Mackeras’ feature film directorial debut, “Alice,” at the Seattle International Film Festival last weekend. I was almost shouting at the screen. Anyone who knows me knows this is aberrant behavior. It’s the opposite of how I want to act.
Give the movie credit that I cared this much. But is it also a problem with the script? The character got me so angry not only because he was awful but because our title character acted so stupidly.
A terrible fix
Alice (Emile Piponnier) is the wife of Francois, and, as the movie begins, a bit of a nonentity. She’s ultra polite. Ironically, given what she becomes, she’s just a girl who can’t say no. At least that’s what her husband, a lit professor and would-be novelist, tells her before a dinner party she’s prepping, after one of the party guests says she can’t bring the wine and would Alice do it for her? Alice says yes. She can't say no.
She also can’t say no to her husband. When he arrives home, she asks him to get their son, Jules, out of her hair so she can prep the meal, and instead, he and the boy hover over her. Some of it is cute—he pretends the chocolate is the detritus of fairy tale monsters, etc.—but it’s definitely not helpful, and in retrospect pretty creepy.
The next day she’s buying items at a pharmacy when her credit card is denied. So is her backup. She can’t withdraw money from the ATM and her husband is not picking up. Eventually she goes to the bank inn person and a bank rep spills all:
- For the past year or two, her husband has been withdrawing their savings, and there's nothing left
- He hasn’t paid their mortgage in that time
- The bank is about to foreclose on their home—didn’t you get the notices?
And still hubby isn’t picking up. What begins as polite pleas ends in angry shouting and phone-throwing. After she figures out his computer password, she learns the problem: He’s been spending their money, including the €90,000 her father left her, including all that mortgage money, on high-end hookers.
Me in the audience: Wait, that much money? Is that even possible? I expected another shoe to drop, but that was the shoe.
Going in, I knew the movie was about a woman in dire circumstances who becomes a hooker and winds up enjoying the power/control of the profession. What works is her path. It's believable. Initially she's merely investigating how much her husband paid for the service. But because she’s tall, thin, and with a girl-next-door face, she gets the gig she didn’t even know she was auditioning for. And because it pays €1,000 or so a throw, and because she immediately owes €7,000+ or she and her son will lose their home, she takes it.
What are the customers like? No one’s horrible; most are tentative; all are men. She starts shy and bumbling but soon gets the hang of it. Her mentor in all of this, and soon her best friend, is Lisa (Chloe Boreham), a tough ex-pat from New Zealand. She tells Alice the ritual: change into something sexy, offer a back massage, soon they’ll turn over, then finish it with the usual protection. Easy peasy.
That we are.
Yes, one dude is a little creepy but he’s creepy internally. He’s working out his own deep issues, but he’s never harmful to Alice.
Watching, I assumed two things. I thought the bank manager, to whom she was paying off the mortgage, would wind up a customer and know where the money came from. Nope. I also imagined that once she got her life in order again after the chaos her husband caused, he would return to cause more chaos. That happens, but it happens much, much sooner than I expected.
Oughter say nix
One day he's just there, back in the apartment, seemingly contrite, with a thin shin of sweat on his pale skin, and taking but really absolving himself of all responsibility. Where was he? At a friend’s. What does he want? To get back together with Alice. What does Alice want? A babysitter.
She’s no “Belle de Jour”—and, yes, someone needs to write an essay comparing the films—because she’ll do it at all hours, at a moment’s notice. In other words, she’s still the girl who can’t say no, but this time for money, and her friends, such as they are, are no help with last-minute babysitting. That’s how Francois worms his way back into her life. She needs a sitter.
Question: Does she think she’ll get away with it? That he’ll accept those terms? That he won’t try for more? How dumb is she? Because of course he finds out what she’s doing, is both turned on and repulsed, demands she stop, then essentially blackmails her: Let me back into your life or I’ll take Jules from you. A last-minute reveal that goes nowhere: The high-end hooker he used most was Lisa.
How does she fight back? She pretends to go along with it, then poisons his meal and chops him up into little bits and puts them out with the compost, where they’re mistaken for worms.
Kidding. She pretends to go along with it, then she and Lisa take everything, including Jules, and move to New Zealand. This dovetails with earlier conversations about Alice wanting to feel the earth beneath her feet, etc., but it leaves questions. I thought she got into hooking to help save her apartment? So did she? Or did she merely stave off the foreclosure for a few weeks/months at exorbitant rates? I mean, once Francois fucked up everything in the beginning, couldn’t she and Jules have simply moved somewhere else and started anew? Without the hooking? So doesn’t the end undercut the entirety of the movie?
“Alice” is winning awards on the festival circuit, and it’s fine for a first feature, but it’s not all that.