It’s often cited that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, but many would dispute that as fact, with others trying to get in on the action over the years, including farming, hairdressing, teaching as well as religion.
What we know to be true is that it’s a profession that has long held a fascination in film, as Russian director Oleg Frelikh’s 1927 silent film Prostitute illustrates.
For her directorial debut, Australian director Josephine Mackerras has also written this feature, exploring the slightly less grubby side of prostitution, if there can be such a thing, which is often laughably described as the high end of sex work, escorting.
If there’s such a thing as the perfect family, Alice (Emilie Piponnier) believes she has it. She has a doting husband in François (Martin Swabey) and a wonderful son in the young Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras), with all of them living in a cosy apartment in Paris.
However, her world is quickly shattered one day on a shopping trip; she goes to the counter to buy a few items, only to find that her card is declined. Thinking it’s a simple error, she checks her account at the ATM, and is distressed by what she sees.
Alice then manages to get a meeting with her bank manager, who informs her that not only is her account empty, but she owes the bank thousands in unpaid mortgage payments. She pleads that there must be some mistake, but he insists that she talk to her husband.
So she does just that. Or at least she tries to. But he’s not answering, any of her many messages that she leaves on his phone.
After doing a little digging, it dawns on her that it’s all true, and the reason is that her husband has stolen all of their money, spending a large chunk of it on the company of escorts.
But when she visits one of these establishments to learn how much these escorts charge, it plants a seed in her that perhaps she’s in the wrong business, and that if she’s to have any chance of saving her home, it may come at quite a price.
If ever a film suffered from being bipolar it’s this one. At times it has the feeling of a kitchen sink drama, with a woman spiralling out of control at the news of losing everything. Elsewhere it becomes a fairly frothy comedy, with the protagonist getting to grips with the sex trade, as it were, with the joviality of a Carry On flick.
It’s these dramatic gear changes that makes Alice a difficult film to take seriously. But it’s not the only thing as the premise itself is somewhat indigestible.
What the film tries to sell us is that Alice has reached rock bottom so quickly, she has no other alternatives than to sell her body. This is reached with little in the way of exploring other avenues, except a difficult conversation with her mother that doesn’t help. No getting in touch with a helpline, or visiting a charity, or even asking friends for advice. Nothing. As soon as her eyes light up at how much money these women earn, there’s literally no turning back. The message that the film quickly conveys is this: if all else fails use sex as a currency.
It certainly doesn’t do itself any favours when the only mental struggle the protagonist suffers from in regards to becoming a prostitute are her difficulties getting a babysitter.
With society trying to move on from such dated and dangerous thinking, on all fronts, this film feels like several steps backwards. What’s even more startling is that it’s both written and directed by a woman. How she ever considered a film promoting the monetary rewards a woman can gain from simply selling her sex as an appropriate story to tell at this time – or any for that matter - beggars belief.
And to do so in such a cack-handed fashion doesn’t help her cause. That’s not to say a film of this topic can’t be both dramatic and amusing, but the tone and balance here are completely out of whack.
To express in film that for a woman to sell her body for money is more of a first resort rather than a last, is just unacceptable. And just because she can work in comfortable hotels with businessmen that really don’t last that long and get paid the big Euros for doing it, doesn’t make it OK.
And just because many deem it the oldest profession, doesn’t mean it’s the only one.
This film doesn’t just misjudge the current political mood, it tragically ignores it. Lacking both social and creative integrity, the only thing it’s peddling is a dangerously dated perspective.