By Caz Armstrong
This review contains some mild spoilers.
“Alice” (2019) is a French-language film by director Joséphine Mackerras which won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize. It shines a light on the reality of women’s place in western society and the empowering nature of sisterhood.
Francois (Martin Swabey) brings his family to the brink of ruin by squandering all their money on sex workers. His wife Alice (Émilie Piponnier) is faced with having to play a rigged system in order to save her home and her son.
The underlying theme of her resulting predicament could be encapsulated in one key line;
“Prejudice is more powerful than logic.”
Through Alice’s story, we see double standards, manipulation, and distrust that blights many women’s lives despite apparently ‘having it all’.
Alice seems to have the perfect life with a beautiful son, a bakery business, a husband and a secure home. But there is no line between work and domestic duties. She is expected to do it all and is taken for granted in all elements. She is undermined by her husband and left both holding the baby and burning the cake.
Alice is soon left abandoned and devastated, her life and finances are shattered. As Francois’ actions become known other characters become a mouthpiece for society’s attitudes. If only Alice had been a better person, more loving, more forgiving, better in bed. She should take him back. Alice is not heard, not believed, and blamed for the actions of a man, as so many women are.
The gaslighting comes from all sides. If she doesn’t take him back the failure of the marriage will be her fault. Both Francois and Alice feel trapped by work, childcare, and marriage. This film holds up a mirror to a culture that tells us men need ‘man caves’ and frequent easy escape from the ball and chain of family life but women somehow don’t. They’re expected to do the work, raise the children, and to enjoy it all.
Much of this micro-budget film is shot indoors. This makes Alice’s rare moments of freedom all the more delicious. Her hair screams in the breeze on a boat in the river or while she cycles with pure abandon. We’re reminded of the importance of bicycles in particular to women’s liberation movements. Transportation without limitation is freedom and with freedom comes empowerment.
Through incredibly sensitive camera work the sex work scenes are not too visually explicit but audiences will cringe at the sounds they hear in the bedroom scenes.
Sex work is treated with an even hand in this film. It’s functional, lucrative, awkward, humorous, but not shown as being very dangerous. Various characters state clearly that they don’t feel degraded by it and it enables them to take control of their otherwise restricted lives. We know this is not the case for all but a clear point is still made – men’s demand for sex fuels both women’s downfall and their windfall.
For Alice’s friend and guide Lisa (Chloé Boreham) sex work is a path she was led down by external forces then vilified for choosing. She is the devil incarnate for taking the next logical step she’s been groomed for since childhood.
“You’ve trained for this your whole life. Scanning people’s emotions.”
The links are plain to see. Rigid gender roles and society’s attitudes plus limited options lead to women being vilified for the “choices” they make. The ending scenes skilfully use colour and space to deliver a final twisting punch to the stomach. Alice is a proxy for all women who have been backed into a corner by heteronormative double standards. Having to keep a man happy in order to preserve her sanity, security, and children. As Alice says, “If I don’t do what he wants he’s going to take my baby”.
The film is beautifully shot, fraught with dilemmas and ultimately shows us the empowering nature of sisterhood in an unfair world.
It presents complex issues in an even-handed way and gives space for different sides of the story to be told. “Alice” is about resilience, determination, resourcefulness, solidarity, and playing a system that’s stacked against you. I left wanting to shake someone by the shoulders and scream “See! This is what patriarchy does to women!”