Review: Alice (2019)

Writer-director Josephine MacKerras delivers the goods with this gripping and emotional feature film debut

Alice Ferrand has what many women dream of; a beautiful son, close friends and a loving husband. But when her credit cards stop working and her husband doesn’t come home from work, Alice discovers that he has left her in enormous debt and on the brink of homelessness. In a desperate fight to save herself and her son from destitution, Alice enters the world of prostitution and embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

A few years ago there was little doubt that up-and-coming writer-director Josephine MacKerras would be one to keep an eye on. Now, there is none. Following on from a string of award-winning short films, MacKerras’ debut feature film, Alice, is every bit as compelling as her earlier works and, just this week, took home the top prize in the Narrative Feature category at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The female-led drama deftly highlights how easily even a happy life can lead to complacency, ignorance and stagnation of the soul. And as depressing as that sounds, there is actually very little to get upset about when it comes to Alice. 

Emilie Piponnier (Vincent and A Perfect Plan) is impressive in the title role. Demonstrating her calibre, the actress imbues the ignorant housewife with both strength and vulnerability. But it is Piponnier’s skilful ability to weave innocence into her character that captivates the most. The more you watch her, the more intriguing she becomes. Alongside her, Martin Swabey (Little Glory) is deliciously hateful in the role of Alice’s husband, Francois. Whilst Chloe Boreham grounds the narrative as the straight-talking prostitute Lisa, Swabey evokes a fear that keeps the rope of tension taut throughout the film. The actor, who plays the part with intense sincerity, creates an image of a man broken under the weight of social expectations, that is both troubling and alarming in its relatability.

But Alice does more than showcase the prowess of its small but talented cast. The film also highlights a number of issues prevalent in today’s society. Writer-director MacKerras expertly unpicks the aspirational elements of Alice’s happy life with powerful moments between Alice and her family and friends. These moments, though brief, add layers of social commentary and raise important questions. Everything from the superficiality of friendships to the inequalities and prejudices in gender expectations (both past and present) are all driven home with sharp effect.

Thankfully though, MacKerras steers clear of making these issues the overriding subject of the film. Instead, she uses them to punctuate the character-driven narrative, revealing the hidden loneliness inherent in many lives today with a welcome lack of preachiness. A rare delight in the swamp of jilted-wife dramas. And where the more cliched elements of the story genre exist, MacKerras’ brave direction and thoughtful writing counter it at every turn. Unexpected twists and refreshing dialogue take the edge off that I’ve-seen-this-before feeling and keep the film engaging.

But the biggest victory here, and the one that sets Alice apart from similar films, is its lack of victimisation. Though lied to, betrayed and left on the brink of homelessness, Alice is not merely the victim-wife of a selfish husband and neither is her husband written off as just a “bad guy”. Both are far more complex. There are no victims here, just adults, making decisions and living with the consequences.

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