The Wellington Film Society’s program will soon take a break for a couple of weeks to welcome The International Film Festival but there’s still a couple of weeks of films and then the program returns in mid-August for another few months. Following on from last week’s showing of Young Torless we are back in contemporary times with Fidelio: Alice’s Journey.
A powerful first feature from a French filmmaker to watch, this is about a young woman toughing it out below decks on an ocean voyage. It’s unusual to see a 30-year-old woman as an engineer on a cargo ship, but Alice (Ariane Labed) is a tough pro, holding her own among the otherwise all-male crew in this slice-of-life French drama. Alice’s sweet Norwegian boyfriend is patiently waiting for her in Marseille, but when the captain of her latest posting turns out to be an old flame, staying true just got a lot more challenging. Lucie Borleteau’s remarkably assured first feature intrigues with its doc-style observation of the daily routines, sudden stresses and eccentric rituals of life on an ocean-going workhorse. Yet it never loses sight of the aching, sensual undertow prompting its protagonist’s sometimes impulsive behaviour. True, Borleteau might have stoked the flames a bit higher, but the languor of the storytelling draws us in, and Greek actress Labed is both convincing in French and a strong-yet-vulnerable presence capable of holding an entire movie together.
– Trevor Johnston, Time Out.
“I’m replacing someone,” Alice (Ariane Labed) tells her lover Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie) as she prepares to take on a last-minute commission as second engineer on the cargo ship Fidelio. Despite Alice’s breezy tone, the notion of replacement goes on to carry considerable weight in Lucie Borleteau’s complex and accomplished debut feature. Fidelio turns out to be the new name for the same old ship on which Alice served her cadetship – and a harbinger of the test her own fidelity will face from the presence of Gael (Melvin Poupaud), the captain with whom she had an affair back then. Alice becomes quickly preoccupied not only with Gael, but with the deceased sailor whose job she has stepped into. The all-male, multinational crew she works with, meanwhile, is conspicuously concerned with professional displacement – by female mechanics such as Alice, which is unusual, and by low-paid, stateless migrants, which is less so. And night after night, the stable relationships they have left behind on land are replaced by fleeting physical encounters.
Like The Master (2012), with which it shares the motif of churned-up water foaming in a vessel’s wake, Fidelio presents the ocean as a milieu in which certain social rules are suspended, while other guidelines, customs and hierarchies are intensified. Rather than putting aside or disguising her femininity in order to fit in with the aggressively macho onboard environment, Alice seems to thrive within it. She actively enjoys the drinking, smoking and sexual boasting – “I’ve fucked on all five continents,” she tells a table of colleagues – and accepts, with a sphinx-like smile of semi-approval, being confronted with intimate snapshots or details of grisly sexual dares. Yet she is compelled to set her own boundary and endanger her position as one of the boys when an obnoxious crewmate, Frederic, assaults her in her cabin.
The encounter with Frederic looks briefly as if it might define Alice’s direction and that of the film: a tomboy turns feminist avenger and risks her job, an unabashed good-time girl stands up for her right not to be treated as sexual fair game. But while it touches on those points, Borleteau’s story (co-scripted with Clara Bourreau) proves less straightforward in its intentions. Alice keeps her rage and tears private in the aftermath of Frederic’s transgression, and weathers the gossip without comment when Gael promotes her in Frederic’s stead. Of more interest to her is the matter of what really happened to her predecessor Patrick and the increasing choppiness of her own emotional waters.
At home, she is anchored by Felix, with whom she is in the happy first throes of love; but just as the ships on which she works alter their direction depending on changes in weather and markets, so Alice becomes wayward on the water. What happens at sea stays at sea, she and her shipmates tell each other, but intimate smartphone photographs respect no such boundaries, and Alice’s slapdash approach to covering her tracks soon catches up with her. Gael, meanwhile, imperils her system of compartmentalisation by threatening to become emotionally available to her. In a scene that’s neatly ironic but still persuasive, Alice is distraught to learn that he is not happily married, as she had believed, but in the midst of a divorce.
To some viewers, Alice will seem at best an improbable creation and at worst a traitor to the feminist cause: a facilitator of male fantasies and misdeeds; no friend to other women. And few will be able to defend her against the charge of self-involvement, particularly when she discards her interest in what really happened to Patrick in favour of regarding his diary as a map through her own minor emotional quandaries. However one reads its protagonist’s particular behaviour, however, Fidelio stands out among films about sex and gender by virtue of presenting Alice’s sex life as her own business, and not a response to the desires of the men around her.
At both extremes of the gender debate there exists a tendency to characterise heterosexual sex as a male preoccupation in which the female participant is at best passive, if not abused or enslaved. Outside of the HBO television series Sex and the City (with which this has the odd unexpected resonance, thanks not only to the theme of being torn between a devoted new lover and an irresistible ex, but also to Labed’s resemblance to Sarah Jessica Parker), it’s hard to come up with many recent works in which a woman struggles with monogamy not because she’s chronically messed up or self-hating, but just because she likes sex and can’t decide.
Narratively, Borleteau’s film is pleasingly ambiguous without being difficult or abstruse. Rather than a linear narrative, it presents a wealth of intriguing incidents and atmospheres, loosely linked together by Alice’s experiences. Both the physical environment of the boat and the interaction of the men on board are portrayed in a manner at once straightforward and poetic, calling to mind another female director’s film about work, jealousy and male company. Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999). The onslaught of frightening accidents that accompanies Alice’s growing romantic confusion hints at supernatural forces, or an Alien-style infestation. But these incidents also simply serve to illustrate the hazardous nature of the sailors’ work, and the slapdash safety measures taken by their employers. As they treat the Fidelio, so Alice treats her relationship, and a degree of risk is inevitable in both cases.
If the film finally supplies less dramatic payoff than early scenes seemed to promise, with many narrative threads allowed to drift away unresolved, this in itself expresses something essential about the character at its centre. Whether it makes her self-protective or self-destructive, a feminist or a femme fatale, Alice is finally less affected by other people than she likes to think: her primary fidelity is to herself.
– Hannah McGill, Sight and Sound, November 2015.