Alice is a story of a woman who becomes a high-end prostitute to provide for her child. Directed by Josephine Mackerras, the film offers a complex story of family life and dormant betrayal, a take on the morals of sex work that is at once both personal and strangely distant.
In the opening scenes, Alice (Emilie Piponnier) enjoys a comfortable life in Paris with her husband, Francois (Benjamin Bourgois), and their young son. We are shown snapshots of their life—father holding and teasing son while mother bakes cake, the typical quaintness of family life. A dinner party scene reveals that Francois is a writer. He mocks Victor Hugo, recites poetry on command, but he is avoidant when asked, ‘Your novel, how is it going?’ The next morning, he drinks a tall glass of straight whisky but the stress doesn’t seem abnormal. It is when Alice’s card is declined that she learns their accounts have been emptied and their home is facing foreclosure, and the audience is thrust into the vertigo of her overturned life. A phone number she finds in his desk leads her to a high-class escort service. Wanting information, she attends a group interview but finds herself one of two women to be accepted for the job. Pressed by the bank for payment, she is left without option.
The film awkwardly attempts to juxtapose the intimacy and understated happiness of personal relationships and their underlying tensions. The opening scenes, for instance, seem humdrum and incidental, rather than as intimate captures of family life. Indeed, many sections of the film feel as though they’re pasted together in sequence, rather than cohesively proceeding from the other, ultimately making the story hard to believe at points. This manifests in a touching scene in which Alice sings her son to sleep and afterwards hides under a blanket herself, bewildered and child-like. She calls her mother, who is clearly unable to help with money but only says, “You don’t leave your husband at the first sign of difficulty” and “He must have felt something was missing from home.” This gives a sense of dissatisfying storytelling, a feeling of something being not quite right and having to fill in the missing links yourself—namely the force that drives Alice to becoming a sex worker, which is strangely enough only explored on a disjointed surface level. This distracts us from experiencing the morally ambiguous scenes as they come, as well as from truly feeling Alice’s isolation and the weight of her situation.
The most well-executed scenes of the film are the sexual interactions themselves. They are understated yet honest, showing less but achieving more. Most notably, there is no explicit imagery, only powerful suggestion—the sounds of condom wrappers, the dry silence and one-sided tremolo breaths, the heavy gaze of men when Alice wanders into their lair. There is a particularly powerful scene where Alice looks in the mirror of a client’s bathroom, speaking to herself in her mind: “Take control.” This is the first insight into Alice’s own psyche. She is speaking to herself, not reacting to others. The voiceover of her inner thoughts continue into the scene where she sits atop her client: “You do the usual thing, fake how fabulous he is. The better you are at faking, the quicker it will be over. Usually the sex part is over fast.” Another time, a polite businessman tells her “Would you mind lying on your stomach” and “I’d prefer if you stopped talking now” before bursting into tears, “I need you,” and asking her to leave. We see the difference between the civil exterior and the dark interior. Even if presented in a slightly roundabout way, Alice comes to a full circle realisation of the meaning an escort can have for someone: temporary relief and comfort, and escape from pressure, even if she is sleeping with someone’s husband.
At the same time, Mackerras reveals the self-empowerment that can come with sex work. For Alice, this means personal revolution against her social conditioning: “I don’t feel lost. I don’t feel degraded. I have almost saved my home.” Lisa, a fellow escort Alice befriends along the way, at one point bemoans the parallels between sex work and sex trafficking. Like Alice confronting the law’s stigma against sex workers, the film has an often shallow handling of what could be overarching themes of the film and of sex work at large, but we are, at least, exposed to the many questions that arise in a discussion of sex work and its function in society.
The connection to Alice in Wonderland is almost impossible to ignore: the protagonist’s name, her wide lost eyes and doe expression, as well as the frequent references to the ‘fallen woman’ trope. The film even ends with Alice walking in a forest. Intentionally or not, Mackerras successfully subverts the problematic conventional belief that conceives of prostitution as the work of a degraded woman. Despite the falling action, which has arguably too many twists, the film navigates the moral complexity of a woman who by society’s standards has fallen down the rabbit’s hole, but prevails for her child’s sake.