3 January 2016

Lucie Borleteau’s ‘Fidelio: Alice’s Journey’

It's difficult to imagine Fidelio: Alice's Journey, Lucie Borleteau 's first feature, being made in any country but France, where it was released late in 2014 as Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice. For a start, the setting is mostly on board a container ship, the Fidelio. Secondly, Alice, a Bretonne like many French sailors, is one of the ship's officers. Thirdly, she is an engineer, good at her job and accepted quite happily by the other officers and ship's crew.

At short notice, 30-year old Alice, played with conviction by Ariane Lebed ( last seen here as one of the villa party in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight), has to leave her boyfriend, Félix (Anders Danielsen Lie), to take the place of one of Fidelio's engineering officers after his sudden death. Fidelio's captain, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), was her instructor when she was a student, not just in matters nautical. They revive their affair - infidelity on the part of both. Perhaps not surprisingly, Alice gets a good report and, after some leave with family and boyfriend, returns to the Fidelio as chief engineer. This time, during a longer series of voyages including a call in Senegal, she has a fling with one of the other engineers and starts to read her predecessor's diary. Eventually, the Fidelio, increasingly prone to technical problems, having reached Gdansk is scrapped, a metaphor for Alice's relationship with Félix.

The film is more interesting than I've made it sound. I was surprised how closely involved Alice was shown to be, given her seniority, in tackling Fidelio’s proliferating problems – getting her hands dirty. But la marine marchande could well, for all I know, be under cost pressure to reduce staff and it often has to be all hands to it in a crisis. Although the film is a portrayal of a woman in what was until recently very much a man's world, Alice is not engaged in a tiresome struggle to establish herself in the face of male prejudice, confronting glass ceilings and so on. Instead Borleteau, by following Alice’s life for a few months, reveals the problems both men and women face in being away from home for such long periods. I wonder whether a male director would have been able to take such a frankly honest view of Alice’s sexuality. The UK poster tells us “What happens at sea stays at sea”, but if you think that was introduced with a typical lack of Gallic sophistication, the French equivalent was “Ce qui passe en mer reste en mer”!

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