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Films by women, French Cinema

Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014)

Alice (Ariane Labed) is a woman in a traditionally male environment (at least as seen in films).

Alice (Ariane Labed) is a woman in a traditionally male environment (at least as seen in films).

At a time when the number of films directed by women has become a major issue in the anglophone world, it’s worth noting that in France things have moved on considerably. In a review of Mon Roi (2015) by the actor-director Maïwenn (Sight & Sound, July 2016), Ginette Vincendeau makes the point that currently over 25% of directors in France are female and that the major Paris film school Fémis now has gender parity in its student body. France offers the best opportunities for female filmmakers. However, Vincendeau goes on to point out that many of these female directors don’t necessarily share the expectations of feminist critics and audiences in terms of the films they decide to make – often auteurist works about individuals rather than social issues.

Lucie Borleteau (b. 1980) worked as an assistant to leading directors, including Claire Denis, before producing three ‘medium length’ films and then her début feature Fidelio – Alice’s Journey. She co-wrote the film with Clara Bourreau and drew on the expertise of her best friend who joined the Merchant Marine. The idea of a narrative about a woman on a large cargo vessel with a small group of men raises the possibility of a range of ‘gender issues’, but Borleteau’s work with the Greek actress Ariane Labed as Alice focuses on sexual desire and ideas about love and relationships as seen by a very self-assured and confident young woman.

Alice and her ‘journey’

Borleteau’s approach is signalled in this extract from an interview with her that is included in the film’s Press Notes:

(Interviewer) . . . the reality of people and situations, the way Alice has to constantly navigate the everyday sexism that comes with existing in a world of men was so familiar. There’s no climactic moment of overcoming anything specifically, it’s just a lived experience.

(Lucie Borleteau) Absolutely, I did not want it to be as if it’s a fight. She’s not a young mechanic, she’s 30 years old, she has experience, and nobody can say she’s not qualified. But of course, you have sex photos all over the ship, in cabins, and when they go for a port-of-call party, there are girls and all that. But that’s from what my friend told me about. In every situations, sometimes there are harder examples of sexism, and sometimes it can be quite casual. It’s good also to make films that are close to real life today. To me, films with a big climax where the character overcomes sexism are now old-fashioned.

Alice makes a clear distinction between love and monogamy. But the film is nonjudgmental.

Absolutely.” 

In Ariane Labed’s marvellous performance we see a woman who is at ease with who she is and what she wants to do. Part of that ease is expressed in her approach to lovers old and new. The film includes several scenes from Alice’s sex life, each of which is presented with an honesty and absence of coyness that fits the mood of the film.

What is Alice’s ‘journey’? The ship makes a journey which certainly has an end point. Its name is ‘Fidelio’ and this is reference to ‘fidelity’ is one of the symbolic elements in the film – as is the appearance of a poisonous snake in the bowels of the ship. In conventional terms the film’s narrative does not have the ‘closure’ of much of Hollywood. Alice doesn’t go on a ‘journey’ towards redemption or self-knowledge. Instead, the open-ending allows each of us to decide what happens next to Alice and the other characters. Audiences are likely to have different views on Alice’s behaviour and therefore on where she will go next.

When I discussed this film with an audience I was pleased to discover that most of them liked the film and agreed with the director’s statements. It struck me that in the film Alice gets to deliver dialogue that we might have heard before from male characters in a mainstream film about sexual encounters from a male point of view and this is one of the ways in which Lucie Borleteau makes a statement without being didactic. There is just one incident in which Alice is subject to a sexual assault and she deals with it in a way that seems perfectly reasonable but Borleteau shows that her actions have consequences. The narrative also gives us enough to question whether Alice’s overall approach to sex and personal relationships is as straightforward as she makes out – and as ‘pain free’. There is one scene in which Alice returns home to an extended family of sisters and this seemed like a whole new narrative strand could open up – perhaps another film?

Shipping and globalisation

It’s interesting to see a film about contemporary shipping. There are moments of almost documentary-like ‘procedure’ in the film, but mainly the globalised shipping world is represented through the ship’s crew and the communications with the (unseen) owners. Some scenes were shot on a ship sailing between Marseille and Tunisia. Interiors were mainly studio based. From a British perspective it is interesting to see the way aspects of French culture remain important on board ship and how all the ship’s officers are French even if the rest of the crew is multinational and English is often required for communication with Filipinos and other crew members. The British Merchant Marine seems to have virtually disappeared with ships registered under ‘flags of convenience’ and multinational crews. The only recent films I can recall seeing that feature merchant shipping have been French or Danish. Shipping in the globalised world is a cut-throat business and what happens to the Fidelio seems very real. I think Lucie Borleteau’s film offers us a great deal and should be more widely seen.

Fidelio is another gem from New Wave Films. Here is the trailer:

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