Alice (2019)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/20/20 11:34:29
"Alice" - whether referring to the film's title or its main character - is a lot of different things over the course of the film's running time, and what's really impressive is how well it manages to be all of them. Filmmaker Josephine Mackerras takes an idea that could be the plot of a sex comedy or a scathing critique, does a bit of both, and gets from one to the other in the smart way that acknowledges that all this stuff happens together.Said stuff involves Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) being caught flat-footed at her family's bank account being empty, eventually discovering that husband François (Martin Swabey) spent it all on prostitutes and has now basically vanished with their apartment about to be foreclosed upon if she doesn't raise 8,000 euros in two weeks. She shows up at one of the services' recruiting days just to find out how much François paid each time, only to have proprietor Vera (Marie-laure Dougnac) decide she likes Alice's good-girl vibe and offer her work. A young veteran (Chloé Boreham) shows her the ropes, and maybe that will be enough to keep Alice and son Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras) from landing out on the street.
The opening stretch of this movie is genuinely stressful, ramping up from how, in the very first scene the pre-school-age Jules is demanding chocolate and François's arrival does not exactly make things less chaotic, even if they are all smiling. Mackerras uses moments like that to hint at cracks in the façade even as the content of such scenes are meant to scan as pleasant, but it's got the audience just enough on edge that, when the first penny drops, she's got momentum set up to make it much worse as François doesn't come home and the people at the bank are being condescending or patronizing and nobody will give her a straight answer. At a certain point, she seems to know she's laying it on a bit thick as she cuts off any other means of escape, having Alice react in disbelief as her mother suggests it's at least partly her fault, dropping "you did not just say that to me!" practically in unison with the viewer.
Said viewer will probably snort on hearing that a bit, but it shifts things just enough that, when Alice's first appointment becomes slapstick, it's okay to laugh, and actually laugh hard, because a lot of this movie is actually very funny. It's not all or even mostly risqué and physical, but one of Mackerras's great strengths here is keeping the absurd parts of Alice's situation just far enough in the foreground to make things chaotic and unpredictable without actually veering too far into farce that the less-amusing things that are bound to happen are out of place or jarring. That Alice occasionally seems to be in on the joke, making decisions in part because she knows they're ironic, actually helps out a lot at times, giving her a level of self-awareness that she didn't necessarily have at the start without this change draining any life from the movie.
Emilie Piponnier is the one that makes all of that happen on screen, the center of every scene and fantastic at showing both the stress of this strange situation and the curiosity it creates, giving the audience an Alice full of kindness but not foolishly so. She's excellent at showing the mounting stress on Alice in a way that doesn't really hit until Mackerras decides to fully pull back the curtain. She's got good support in Chloé Boreham, who makes Alice's new friend an entertaining foil, individual enough that her being named "Lisa" doesn't entirely define her as Alice's complement (it works a bit better with French pronunciation); while Martin Swabey does really nice work at depicting François as entitled and kind of pathetic without making him a cartoon even as his behavior becomes worse and Alice is able to see it more clearly.
There's a bit of shagginess that perhaps comes from being Mackerras's first feature, but the film is just as often impressively economical in its storytelling, such as how François's return resolves some issues but creates others. She and her crew do a number of little things that make the movie a little better in ways one might not necessarily notice, from the details of the business to the make-up work that on the one hand emphasizes Alice's growing maturity and on the other hand exaggerates and leverages how pale some members of this cast are. Conversations and arguments between Alice and François have bigger and more precise impacts from how one can see their faces flush, most obviously heightened by one client who initially seems aloof.That bit is one of a number of details that makes this sometimes sparse, small film hold together exceptionally well; Mackerras and Piponnier make Alice's life harrowing and funny in a way that feels real as well as entertaining. The film is a small gem that will hopefully take advantage of the current theatrical shutdown to make it onto the virtual marquees of theaters that might not otherwise have room for it and create opportunities for both its star and director to have bright futures.
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