It makes no sense. The night before saw Alice Ferrand’s (Emilie Piponnier) husband François (Martin Swabey) going out of his way to passionately make-out with her in front of their friends at a dinner party and now he won’t answer her calls. Despite his running out of the house earlier than usual without any explanation, however, there’s nothing to make her think something is wrong until a trip to the drugstore exposes a freeze on their finances. One credit card won’t work. Then another. The ATM won’t accept her sign-in and François still isn’t picking up his phone. Alice has no other option but to set a meeting with the bank and figure out what’s happening on her own. It’s there that she learns the money is gone.
She can’t even begin to jump to conclusions thanks to being the consummate housewife always saying, “Yes” to anyone who asks. There’s a babysitting play date with one of her young son Jules’ (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras) friends, the promise to bake a dessert for someone else, and the fact that François remains a ghost. So we start to hypothesize for her as she runs around to fulfill obligations and decipher his computer password. Was he having an affair and finally decided to leave? Was he a degenerate gambler who skipped town on debts or was scooped up by his bookie? Maybe his absence is the result of a random yet tragic accident and he’s lying unconscious in some hospital bed without any way to prove his identity.
More than malice, happenstance, or greed, however, writer/director Josephine Mackerras reveals the reasons behind François’ retreat are fear, shame, and guilt. It’s not long after Alice gets lucky accessing her husband’s computer that the pieces fall into place thanks to a few phone numbers that prove the smoking gun once a woman answers with the words “Elegant Escorts.” Suddenly Alice is the one enraged. She desperately tries to salvage whatever assets they still have, but her choices are extremely limited. Worse than that, they diminish to zero once her own mother places the blame at her feet when asked for help. “Marriage is hard,” she says. “Maybe he was searching for something you couldn’t provide.” She’s suddenly broke and alone and the world gallingly asks that she apologize.
Here’s the thing: she probably would have a week ago. Mackerras’ Alice is very intentionally showing us a woman who has built her life upon the patriarchal traditions that her parents and society at-large have thrust upon: Be a good wife. Be a good mother. Be a good neighbor. These imperatives are what it means to be a good woman and thus what Alice has strove to achieve. And maybe she was okay with that life. If something is comfortable enough, you stop asking questions. If something doesn’t actively hurt, you begin to equate that comfort with happiness. Only when the bottom drops do you recognize how it was all an act in service to an archaic ideal. François’ betrayal exposes the systematic deception of mankind’s double standards.
With the threat of eviction looming, Alice has no choice but to toss aside everything she thought was true to literally survive. The first step is embracing deceit by attending an Elegant Escorts interview to glean details about the operation in order to better understand what François did. The next step is answering the phone when the madam in charge (Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Véra) rings with a job offer. Does she want to walk down this path? No. Is it the most effective avenue towards keeping a roof over her son’s head right now? Yes. And with the help of a new friend/co-worker (Chloé Boreham’s Lisa), it’s not long before Alice realizes exactly how similar this life is to the last. The difference now is that she’s in control.
So don’t you dare worry about the decisions she’s making. Each one is made with sound mind and purpose. That doesn’t mean she won’t flirt with going too far by thinking about leaving Jules vulnerable despite it being his wellbeing that motivates her. We often just have to look over the edge before realizing there’s still a line we won’t cross. For the first time in her life, Alice has allowed herself to put real value on who she is as a person and what it is that she can provide. Gone are the days of doing favors out of a false sense of obligation. Gone are the days of letting François absolve himself of wrongdoing simply because he says, “I love you.” She deserves more than words.
It’s therefore no coincidence that Alice doesn’t feel the shame or fear as an escort that her husband felt sleeping with them. François used those women to escape a life he didn’t have the guts to admit was unsatisfying. She’s using the job to build a life that’s hers. And yet we know too well that Alice’s mother would disown her if she found out. Humanity is so entrenched in misogyny that it intrinsically demands us to forgive men and vilify women for doing the same things. If you go into a custody battle with what François did, the judge will say he made a mistake. If you then state what Alice did, she’ll be deemed an unfit deviant before she can even begin to explain the difference.
The looming certainty that the odds aren’t in Alice’s favor despite our knowing what she’s endured is how Mackerras can ratchet up the suspense. Everyone the character knew beforehand starts to look at her in a way that implores her to work towards getting back to “normal.” But what does that mean? Servitude with a smile? This is normal. This is happiness. Alice is truly independent like never before and she’s confronted with the unfair fact that she probably won’t be able to maintain it if she also hopes to keep Jules. To watch Piponnier weigh that abhorrent truth is to witness the internal struggle every woman who’s experienced this type of coerced acquiescence faces. With newfound courage, though, it’s a fight she might just win.
Alice opens in virtual cinemas nationwide on May 15.