The Movie Waffler SXSW 2019 Review - ALICE | The Movie Waffler

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SXSW 2019 Review - ALICE

alice 2019 film review
When her husband blows their joint bank account, a mother turns to prostitution.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Josephine Mackerras

Starring: Emilie Piponnier, Martin Swabey, ChloĆ© Boreham

alice 2019 film poster




What a curious film Alice is. I’ve really no idea what to make of it. Although also, as the film lurches from one genre signifier to another, from a tone of tight-lipped solemnity to sex comedy farce, it becomes apparent that the very people who made it had no clue either…

We at least begin in recognisable loci: the heterosexual hellscape of a middle-class kitchen. Mum (the titular Alice, superbly played by Emilie Piponnier, who manages to surf her film’s tidal shifts with skill, and is the sort of beautiful person who has that quality of reminding you of other similarly pulchritudinous faces: a Gallic Britney Spears, for instance) can’t cope. She’s fussing about in the kitchen, probably getting her fella’s tea ready, and her kid (sixish) is whining on about "chocolat, chocolat." But then her chap glides in, all sweeping hair and equally fly charm, and makes it all ok. You’re already thinking, "Great. Another film about how challenging it is to be a privileged, domestic middle-class mum, as if all women are a fragile bunch of wimps. And on International Woman’s Day, too." This inkling is quickly compounded when it transpires the superfly husband has for yonks been siphoning off the shared bank account and blowing it all on sex workers behind Alice’s back. What a nob!

alice 2019 film review

These early scenes are essayed with gut wrenching flair: in roughly transitioned tight close ups, we witness the authentic misery of poor Alice (resembling a haunted Rebecca Hall) seeing her credit card fail at the till, and then rushing to an ATM to check her balance, and then to another, to ultimately find, that, yes, her account is empty. Hard cut to an implacable bank manager’s office, and then a sorry montage of Alice ringing around the insalubrious places where the bunse has been spent. You begin to settle in for a revenge narrative where Alice claws back her family fortune, confronts her sleazebag fella, and self-actualises (International Woman’s Day has not been forsaken, after all!), in a film which unflinchingly and maturely explores the secrets, lies and sad dissatisfactions which shadow smug, straight set ups.




Hmmm. The first warning signs that perhaps Alice isn’t quite to be trusted come when Alice (the character, looking like a French Sarah Platt) personally investigates one of the agencies, and, just like in the Police Academy films when they hilariously end up in the Blue Oyster Bar by mistake, inadvertently gets interviewed for a role as a high-class prostitute by a couple of comedy-pantomime Madams - yikes, etc. She hits it off with another Brass, Lisa (played by the ace ChloĆ© Boreham), whom you will promptly accept as streetwise and edgy because she wears a Ramones t-shirt. They immediately become best mates, and then, with similarly unconvincing expediency, Alice too becomes a prostitute.

alice 2019 film review

Lisa advises Alice (a wasted Julia Roberts) to think of herself less as a tom and instead as a nurse (!), and, sure enough, what ensues is the most benign representation of prostitution ever committed to film. Honestly. Each film is its own beast, and (like in, say, Monster) one cannot expect depictions of sex work to be instructionally grim, or indeed go for the knockabout comedy of Risky Business, but Alice does neither. Like its titular heroine, it sort of sits on the edge of the bed, unsure of how it got here, or how to proceed. We see a few encounters with customers that have the saccharine feel of a standard meet-cute, blokes who are slightly eccentric and lonely, with no sense of danger or even narrative drama. We’re through the looking glass with this Alice, and not much rings true, and with a film that aspires towards verisimilitude, it’s all mad.




Alice doesn’t seem to be even slightly au-fait with its emotive and challenging subject matter. There’s the convenient ease with which Alice (looking like a less American Brie Larson) walks into her job. The comedy madams who employ Alice run a highly successful, luxury service, but there is no mention of screenings for STDs, no mention of contracts. Alice is simply gifted work based on her "girl next door appeal." With that sort of luck, you wonder why she didn’t try virtually any other form of employment. It’s not as Alice seems to especially enjoy shagging strangers for cash, like this is The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, with cartoon sex positivity on tap. Nor, crucially, is there a real sense that this is the last resort for Alice, that she utterly hates being a sex worker, or that she is even all that down at heel (her flat, late in the film, still has this massive widescreen Mac which she seems to have little use for: why not eBay it?). If she ain’t bothered either way then nor am I.

alice 2019 film review

I’m all set to rinse films which prioritise ideology over art, a spurious point of view over empathy and feeling, but the truth is, despite how lovingly filmed and sincerely acted Alice is, there doesn’t even seem to be a sense of direction at the heart of it. The poster for the film boasts the tagline "she did everything right, until it all went wrong"; a high concept which is understandably more easy to market than, "yeah, this woman loses everything, becomes a prostitute, and sometimes it’s tough but generally it’s alright; what can you do, it’s a living like any other, shame yeah?"



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