Winner of the best narrative feature earlier this month at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Josephine Mackerras’ debut film, Alice, gets under the skin of a perfect marriage that is about to fall apart. As the title suggests, the focus is primarily on the journey taken by Alice (Emilie Piponnier) as she tries to navigate her way out of a disaster created by her deceitful husband, Francois (Martin Swabey). At first, all seems well as we watch him play the doting father and partner with young son Jules (Milo Levy Mackerras), and in-front of friends at a dinner party.
But it seems their relationship is little more than an illusion. Alice unexpectedly discovers Francois has been draining their bank accounts of funds for some time, leaving them penniless. They are several months behind on loan payments which the bank is about to call in by claiming their modest apartment. Francois has gone AWOL and Alice finds out he has blown it all on expensive escorts. But she refuses to let her world fall apart, and after calling the escort agency used by her husband finds herself on their books working her way towards saving the roof over her and Jules’ head.
It seems like quite a leap to move from dotting housewife to high-end escort within a matter of days, but Mackerras’ careful direction and Piponnier’s utterly convincing performance make it work. The handheld camera attentively observes Alice’s transformation into a confident single mother, attempting to ‘unlearn’ the pattern of behaviour that conditioned her into playing the quiet housewife whose own aspirations were permanently put on hold.
The sex industry is often depicted in dark, bleak terms on film, and while it certainly isn’t glamourized, Mackerras (who also wrote the script) gives agency to the women who choose to do it, rather than viewing them as victims with no choice (while also rightly making reference to sex trafficking). Alice doesn’t feel degraded by her new direction and learns from fellow escort and new best friend Lisa (Chloé Boreham) it is the women who are usually in control of the transactions. Many of the men are either sad, desperate, or lonely – if not all three – and simply thankful for the company.
Piponnier has to do much of the heavy lifting with the lens so keenly trained on her facial expressions, but she sells her character's transformation just enough to overlook some of the narrative leaps and plot holes. Boreham is also well cast as the more experienced escort friend, whose own story becomes intertwined with Alice’s the longer we get to know them. The mere presence of Swabey’s Francois proves to be an irritant each time he appears on screen, playing the scumbag husband you only wish bad things would happen to.
Alice also has some lighter moments of humour to level out the drama; including the snap of a condom that will have male viewers squirming in their seats. Mackerras raises some interesting ideas about the different ways men and women are perceived and treated by society, either through the legal system or even by their own blood. She avoids moralising about the choices made by her character and accepts this is a complicated situation that only Alice is responsible for answering to. Because when she gets that second chance, she knows it may never come round again.