Societal attitudes to sex work are complex. The notion of the “fallen woman” is now widely seen to be misogynistic and unfair, but there’s still very little distinction made between women who are exploited and forced into the profession and those who make a conscious choice to do so. Writer-director Josephine Mackerras’s Alice is an intriguing drama that pricks at the heart of that moral complexity through the lens of a terrific central performance by Emilie Piponnier.
She is the title character, who finds her comfortable domestic life shaken when her credit cards start getting declined and husband Francois (Martin Swabey) disappears without a trace. It turns out he’s been secretly splurging the couple’s funds on high-end escorts and they’re now about to be evicted. An enraged Alice visits the agency for a job interview in order to find out more about her husband’s actions but, drawn in by the chance to earn some quick cash, she decides to join the profession. Soon, she’s beginning to feel empowered and enlivened by her new career.
Piponnier is tremendous in the lead role as a woman who doesn’t realise how much she has sacrificed for her marriage, until the point it falls apart. She’s a long way from comfortable in the skin of the high-class sex worker, desperately and hilariously fumbling her first appointment and musing afterwards to fellow escort Lisa (Chloé Boreham) that she doesn’t “feel any different” after selling sex. She’s a conflicted character who, through Piponnier’s searching, expressive eyes, is exploring herself and her sexuality in a way that she never did before, hewing closely to the established morals of her mother. Notably, her mother insists that Francois is a “good father” and that “marriage is hard”, despite his unfaithful and irresponsible actions.
It would be easy for Mackerras to turn Alice into a simplistic, sex-positive tale in which escorting allows the protagonist to throw off the shackles of a bad relationship and become a new woman. Interestingly though, the movie is as uninterested in that as it is in the notion of puritanically condemning sex workers. Clients are not toxic man-children or emotionless corporate automatons, but nuanced people with their own insecurities and textures, while the ways in which Alice’s new job affects her life are sketched with intriguing detail. Mackerras keeps the audience in her corner, but doesn’t let her off guilt-free either.
With this in mind, it’s a little saddening that Alice struggles to stick the landing. After setting up an interesting, if conventional, story strand up for its final act, the movie instead muddies the waters and unravels into soft focus nothingness. Swabey becomes a bland, one-note villain and the engrossing specificity of the story ebbs away. Mackerras does such a good job of pinpointing intricate details for the first hour or so that the conclusion feels like an unfortunate failure to land the potent final blow.
The overriding feeling is one of slight disappointment. With a terrific ensemble of performers — the bond between Piponnier and Boreham is an utter joy — and some impressive building blocks, it’s a little deflating when the movie fizzles to nothing. Despite that, though, Alice is still certainly worth visiting as one of the more complex and sympathetic dramas about sex work that has been made in recent years.
Dir: Josephine Mackerras
Scr: Josephine Mackerras
Cast: Emilie Piponnier, Martin Swabey, Chloé Boreham, Marie-Laure Dougnac, David Coburn, Jules Milo Levy Mackerras
Prd: Josephine Mackerras
DOP: Mickael Delahaie
Music: Alexander Levy Forrest
Country: Australia, France
Run time: 103 mins
Alice will be available on selected digital platforms from 24th July.