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Alice

Year: 2019
Production Co: Visit Films
Director: Josephine Mackerras
Writer: Josephine Mackerras
Cast: Emilie Piponnier, Chloé Boreham, Martin Swabey

I think reactions to this movie – both yours and those of critics – says as much about your morals as they do anything going on in the story or filmmaking prowess.

The story of a wife and mother more or less forced into prostitution to pay her way after being abandoned by her cad husband stirs up every principle you have about sex work and whether it's degrading, abuse, necessary or honourable and every other moral position about it we all might have, and it's the squirming emotional mass churned up by your beliefs on the subject that will form your opinion about the movie as much as anything else.

Because when you take away all that sociopolitical debate it kindles in you, it's kind of middling as a movie.

It's also (I seem to be attracting these recently) the most breathtakingly French premise for a French movie – a woman deciding to become an escort and learning to love it. To further assert its Frenchness, by the way, the character of a bank manager dresses like an 80s porn producer in the San Fernando Valley.

Emilie Pinponnier is perfect as the titular protagonist because she's exactly midway between sexy French vixen and strait laced, buttoned down housewife. She has what appears to be a happy marriage to the dashing Francois (Martin Swabey) and a cute young son.

But when Alice is out shopping one day and goes to get money out of an ATM she finds their account is empty and their credit card full. She goes to the bank to demand an explanation and they tell her that, yes, large withdrawals have been made over the last couple of years regularly enough to send her and her husband broke.

Alice desperately tries to call Francois but he not only stops picking up, he disappears completely, not coming home for days while Alice gets increasingly frantic.

Having pleaded for a bit more time from her bank, she tries to figure out where the money has gone, learning from her amateur sleuthing that Francois has been visiting hookers for years.

It's not terribly clear why (even to her, apparently), but when Alice goes along to one of the brothels he's been frequenting to figure out what's driven her husband to this, she's so unsure and unassertive they assume she's there looking for work, and she's too nervous to disavow them of it.

Despite herself and looking like a rabbit caught in headlights, Alice goes through the process, seeing a young woman who was in the same intake group as her, New Zealander Lisa (Chloé Boreham), in a café.

Lisa, a veteran, is circumspect about the job and assures Alice she'll be fine, and in short order the latter finds herself in a hotel room with a John, her nerves nearly ruining the whole thing but nonetheless leaving him happy.

Before she knows it Alice is a hit, with a string of regular clients – some of them a bit weird and more than a little bit frightening (again causing your moral stance about the work to bubble up), like the English speaking man who puts her on her front, making her wonder what he's going to do to her but doing nothing but touching her and sobbing.

Alice and Lisa become the best of friends, she's finally making enough to satisfy her bank manager and she realises she's good at what she does and that there's nobility in using it to keep a roof over her and her son's heads, and aside from a few hassles trying to find reliable babysitting while she's out doing tricks, things are good.

The story develops when a dishevelled and unshaven Francois comes back, pleading with her that he still loves her and was just screwed up. Of course you want her to tell him to get lost and Alice does too, but despite herself she's still curious to know exactly what went wrong with him. They also still have a child together and she soon learns she can let him back into their lives on her terms - to take care of their boy while she's at work.

Of course it's all going to go bad when he learns what she does despite her considering it none of his business and, after all, his fault she ended up where she is.

She's also enjoying the new feeing of independence and control in her life, and you realise it might be one of the deepest themes in the story, about how Alice thought she was happy when she was actually just comfortable in thrall to the whims of a man and how a crisis had to come along for her to break out of it and realise her own strength as an individual, not just her worth as a wife and mother.

It all leads to the most triumphant but perhaps unrealistic victory over Francois, one writer/director Josephine Mackerras evidently realises you're hoping for.

There's nothing groundbreaking in the directing or storytelling style and for a movie about prostitution it's far tamer than you imagine it'll be, but the power of the movie is all in your political stance on the issue.

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