This French drama by Lucie Borleteau is largely concerned with the love life of the titular Alice (the impressive Ariane Labed), who works as an engineer on cargo ships, which is depited here as a distinctly male-heavy environment. At the beginning of the film she joins the crew of her old and ironically-retitled ship the Fidelio, which is headed from Marseille to a French-speaking African country, replacing another engineer who has died from a heart attack. Alice occupies the dead man’s cabin and slowly gets to know the rest of the crew, an international mix that encapsulates the multicultural nature of the shipping trade and the way that many migrants working on freight shipping lanes have ended up far from home. She leaves her lover – a Norwegian graphic novel artist played by Anders Danielsen Lie – back on the shore and embarks on a number of affairs while on the two journeys depicted here, the longest being with old flame Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), who happens to be the Fidelio‘s captain.
Alice is the only woman on board the Fidelio, and though the crew isn’t especially big there are times when she seems incongruous, despite being skilled at her job. Crewmates call her into their quarters to show her pictures of women they’ve slept with and centrefolds are hung just about everywhere, though Labed’s character is clearly used to all the bawdy banter, and joins in with lines like ‘I’ve fucked on all five continents’. The boat makes for quite an interesting setting for what is a fairly straightforward love triangle, and it allows Borleteau (who co-wrote with Clara Bourreau and Mathilde Boisseleau) to make several connections between the physical journey made by the ship and Alice’s ‘mental’ equivalent as she decides between the candid sex chat and friendship of her long-term safe bet on shore, her lusty and potentially stable sea romance, and a third option of freedom and casual sex with others. Where the first journey is a straightforward back-and-forth with a brief stopover on foreign shores, the second reflects Alice’s own state of mind, and the Fidelio‘s destination is repeatedly altered thanks to the deals of unseen traders working on faraway trading floors. In most films this would all end with the protagonist making a decision and picking one person to stay with, but the writers of Fidelio: Alice’s Journey are barely interested in such a contrivance. For much of the running time Alice happily juggles all three of her options: this is a screenplay that gives plenty of agency to its main character and resolutely refuses to chastise or punish her for infidelity. The focus is less on the two men affected by Alice’s actions and more on her own self-discovery, and in keeping with this the sex scenes, which are fairly graphic but not sensational, are largely concerned with Alice’s pleasure, the notable exception being an assault that takes place in Alice’s cabin at night. That attack, quickly foiled but unpleasant nevertheless, is one of the few events on the boat that Alice manages to keep private on a boat where it is near impossible to keep secrets from fellow crew members; the replaced crewman kept a diary, which Alice reads, and that seems to be one of very few ways in which an insular, personal world can be created while at sea. Anyone wishing to keep their love affairs and one night stands and nights with prostitutes a secret has little hope at all, and so it’s no surprise when Alice’s relationship with Gaël is eventually discovered back at home; Alice’s flippant, later comment suggesting ‘what happens at sea stays at sea’ has a hollow ring to it.
I enjoyed the main plot regarding Alice’s love life but I found Alice’s working life as an engineer on a ship of this magnitude slightly more interesting, and the scenes of downtime spent with several colleagues (whether at sea or in port) are very good, as are the sudden bursts of action that take place within the ship’s engine room. Her relationships with co-workers change gradually as they get to know each other (obviously), and that is subtly rendered in the screenplay. Critics have commented that it’s unlikely that people as good looking as Labed and Poupaud would be found at sea, but I don’t think that’s true at all, and the rest of the crew is a motley mix of people of all shapes and sizes, none of whom I would think of as being conventionally beautiful. We’re conditioned to expect a film with ‘journey’ in the title, or ‘odyssey’, will have a beginning and an end; Borleteau eschews the latter in favour of a suggestion that Alice’s journey – in sexual terms, at any rate – will continue beyond the confines of this story.
Directed by: Lucie Borleteau.
Written by: Lucie Borleteau, Clara Bourreau, Mathilde Boisseleau.
Starring: Ariane Labed, Melvil Poupaud, Anders Danielsen Lie.
Cinematography: Simon Beaufils.
Editing: Guy Lecorne.
Music: Thomas De Pourquery.
Running Time: 97 minutes.