Streaming Review

Alice and the Mayor review – bland political drama is out of ideas

Nicolas Pariser's look at French local government is really just a front for a middlebrow quasi-father-daughter relationship drama

Without fizzle, spark, or the hint of ideas, Alice and the Mayor, Nicolas Pariser’s follow up to 2015’s The Great Game, continues his observation of French political life, but strips it of any intrigue. The result is a drama that’s as flat as its overlit city hall setting. French cinema is often parodied as overly sexy and experimental, but this mundane romance of intellectual curiosity is far more representative of the nation’s current tendency towards middlebrow filmmaking.

Fabrice Luchini, Rohmer regular, a statesman of French cinema, brings appropriate gravitas to the role of Paul Theraneau, the Mayor of Lyon. Highly experienced but out of gas, his political ambition is revived when he hires Alice (Anaïs Demoustier, who beat out both leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the César Awards – her performance lends charisma to dry dialogue). She has a PhD from Oxford, and is considered dynamic and fresh. She is a philosopher, we are told, and across several extended dialogues, the pair argue and pontificate. Although there is no central conflict or stakes to speak of, Alice is also charged with navigating two uninteresting romances.

Pariser is at pains to prove himself as a real filmmaker, evident in loving insert shots of hands writing notes, and people moving through rooms, a gesture to the formal austerity of Bresson. Pariser never misses an opportunity to leech over tight-trousered Alice leaving the frame, though, while pretending to respect her intellect by having her reference Rousseau as a signal for new ideas on leadership.

This is, undoubtedly, a new nadir for France’s modern “tradition of quality.” A well-made film, in the blandest sense, studied in psychological realism, that edges around social issues, sexual hangups, and contemporary politics, without ever challenging viewers to think for themselves or question their aesthetic values.

Pariser’s only idea is to consistently shrink the characters within the town hall frame – against history, or the scale of civil service bureaucracy. As conversations – about philosophy vs. pragmatism, careerism vs. self-belief, ideology vs. community – all run themselves into the ground, Alice and Theraneau find that what seems so different about them actually results in a better political partnership. Stronger together, as Hillary Clinton once said.

In our own hellishly corrupted political landscape, this attractive depiction of the corridors of power comes across as a fantasy play. But things are no less self-interested in France, where the three colours of the flag are used to justify continuous abrasions of civil liberty. By setting his drama at a local level (Lyon symbolising a metropolitan city, but not the blindingly urban sophistry of Paris – something earthier), Pariser side-steps ambiguity so that he can deliver a generational-defying, heartwarming quasi-father-daughter relationship movie. Proceed at your peril.

Alice in the City is now showing on MUBI.

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