Alice review – a great lead performance can’t save a well-intentioned mess

Emilie Piponnier is terrific as a mother who becomes a high class escort to avoid financial ruin, though the film fails to match her

Debuting at SXSW in 2019, where it won the drama competition, Josephine MackerrasAlice arrives in the UK garlanded with festival prizes. To say that it’s disappointing would be an understatement. As a showcase for its lead actor Emilie Piponnier, Alice is a hearty offering, giving her real space to shine, but it's a film that unfortunately falls flat in almost every other department.

Alice (Piponnier) is in a relatively happy marriage with a comfortable life in a bright and airy Parisian flat. This jolly status quo is brought crashing down, though, by the sudden revelation that her husband Francois (Martin Swabey), thanks to a secret all-consuming habit for hiring escorts, has thrown the pair of them into near-destitution. Out of nowhere, Alice’s cards don’t work, the bank is starting foreclosure proceedings, and Francois has disappeared into the ether.

To keep her home and provide for her young son, Alice decides to join one of the escort agencies that Francois frequented, a decision made so rapidly that it strains credulity beyond belief, as does the fact that literally no one in Alice’s life, be it friends or family, is willing to offer even one iota of help. With its central plot elements so unconvincing from the off, Alice really struggles to invest you in the story, exacerbated by the fact that the stakes are never consistent. In one moment, Alice and her son are all but living on the street; in the next, it’s all going smoothly again.

Part of this un-immersion comes from Alice’s sanitised, carefree depiction of prostitution. On one level, it’s refreshing to see the job portrayed as non-judgementally as it is here, and Mackerras affords Alice a dignity in the sex scenes that a more male-gazey film surely wouldn’t. There are also some memorably disarming moments dedicated to the skillsets possessed by some of the women on the sex work circuit, with one high-end manager showing off her near-fluency in French, Italian, Arabic, English, and Russian.

Yet, the complete lack of any danger or even discomfort rings false, numbing you to the apparent seriousness of Alice’s situation. The ending, too, is woefully contrived, striving for some kind of feelgood victory through a couple of very lazy twists.

Saving the film from itself, then, is Piponnier’s job, and she comes admirably close to doing so. She perfectly sells the chaotic whirlwind of emotions that come with a massive crisis, shifting between rage, fear, and hysteria without melodrama, bringing emotional depth to otherwise thin writing, and her mixture of trepidation and embarrassed excitement during the sex scenes is infectious.

Piponnier can only do so much though, and Alice’s style is just as flimsy as its substance. There are some nice shots, and Mackerras works hard to overcome a limited budget, but any good work is undone by a series of awful musical montages in which Alice and a newfound, fellow sex worker friend cycle around the city. These are meant to be explosions of joy, but are instead embarrassing, bordering on laughable. With its good intentions and great lead performance, it should have been easy to recommend Alice – a better alternative would be to skip this one and keep a close eye on the next phase in Emilie Piponnier’s career instead.

Alice is now available to stream on multiple streaming services.

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