2020, R, 105 min. Directed by Josephine Mackerras. Starring Emilie Piponnier, Martin Swabey, Chloé Boreham, Jules Milo Levy Mackerras, Ariana Rodriguez Giraldo, Juliette Tresanini, Christophe Favre, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Marie Coulonjou.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 15, 2020

"I don't feel any different," Parisian housewife Alice tells her new colleague and workplace mentor Lisa after her first day on a new job.

"You mean now you're a fallen woman?" her friend playfully jibes back. Through complicated yet oddly understandable circumstances (a cheating husband, a stolen inheritance, a disinterested and unsupportive mother who thinks she should just stick with her marriage), Alice has become a high-end call girl, and it's one of a series of conversations that she (played with curiosity and strength by Piponnier) has with the more seasoned Lisa (Boreham) as she embraces her unexpected new career.

Writer/director Josephine Mackerras' debut feature took home the narrative feature grand jury prize at SXSW 2019, in no small part because it makes the absurdity of Alice's initial foray into the world of escorting plausible. Much of that comes down to Piponnier's depiction of Alice as a character of nuance, who realizes that the sheltered bourgeois naiveté that has defined her life so far is the real cost she cannot afford to bear (although, as Lisa notes, it's her deer-in-the-headlights awkward innocence that made her stand out to les madames of the agency). She brings the film far closer to The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh's meditative exploration of transactional sex) than the fairytale nonsense of Pretty Woman. Moreover, Mackerras's script neither glamorizes the world's oldest profession nor heads to the pulpit for some Looking For Mr. Goodbar-style sanctimony. Alice is a working mother, balancing career demands with late night child care, and mostly just worried about losing her home. At the same time, her clients are neither monsters or man-children (except for her soon-to-be-ex, Francois, portrayed with a fitting petulance by Swabey). They're flawed, looking for something in the same way that Alice is – this is, after all, transactional, and Alice grasps this quickly, even as she struggles to understand why Francois sought out those same services. The sex scenes are surprisingly chaste: not coy, but devoid of eroticism, instead focusing on the brief moment of connection between Alice and her clients. If anything, they're reminiscent of early Joe Swanberg in how they catch both the foibles and frailties of human sexuality.

Of course, Mackerras' real target is society's hypocrisy when it comes to sex work. Prostitution is something Alice does, not something that should define her forever. Even an overly-optimistic denouement cannot undercut either that message, or the audience's desire for Alice to have a happy ending.

Alice is currently available through Monument Releasing's initiative whereby streaming “tickets” can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:

• Violet Crown Cinema (Tickets here)

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