A mechanic in the French navy, Alice (Ariane Labed) spends much of her life on board cargo ships. Her new boyfriend Félix, a Norwegian graphic novelist, waits patiently for her at home. She is called to serve on the Fidelio to replace a man who has died on board. Having taken over the dead man’s cabin, she peruses his belongings with curiosity, especially a diary which reveals his lifelong unluckiness in love. Meanwhile, Alice’s own love life becomes complicated when the ship’s captain turns out to be a lover from her student days.
If Fidelio were a Hollywood movie, Alice would never be able to forget that she is a woman, and most of the male crew would be against her, apart from one or two allies. Director Lucie Borleteau overturns our expectations of both male and female behaviour, however. Of course, as the only woman on board, Alice will always be different, but cultural differences are sometimes more relevant than gender differences. For example, when the Filipino sailors on board demonstrate special religious or superstitious sensitivities, Alice seems closer to her male French colleagues because they share a culture which sees the Filipino point of view as understandable but ‘other’. And while all of her male colleagues seek out strip bars and prostitutes when the ship is in port, nearly all of them treat Alice like any other sailor: as a friend and equal, occasionally as a daughter or lover, but never as a mere sex object.
The film in fact reflects very well on men, especially those closest to Alice. Like Jasmila Zbanic in Love Island, director Lucie Borleteau reveals men’s vulnerability in a way that is true to life but rarely seen on screen. And when they express their feelings for Alice, the expressions they use are tender and believable, but far from the extravagance and cliché of romance novels and chick flicks.
As for Alice herself, she is unusual among female characters in films, not just in her choice of career, but simply in being the master of her own destiny. She is also unusual in that she is promiscuous without the film presenting her as a vamp or a whore, or ultimately punishing her. The desirable male body is seen through her eyes, with a tender veneration that is worlds away from Hollywood’s comic beefcake lens. Alice’s affairs come about very naturally, almost innocently because, like some men, she believes that what your partner doesn’t know can’t hurt them.
Although she doesn’t feel the same need to seek out a series of sexual partners on shore, Alice ultimately has a lot in common with her male colleagues because of their shared lifestyle as sailors. There is great camaraderie among them, and the ship is such a world of its own that it can be hard to adapt to life back on land. As one of Alice’s colleagues puts it, he’s at ease joking around with his colleagues on board, but on a date with a woman, he freezes.
Alice discovers similar sentiments when reading the diary of the man who died: it was the great sorrow of his life that he never had a romantic relationship with someone who really cared. Alice herself is looking for the one who, as she puts it, will be everything to her. And while she is not judged any more than the men for her promiscuity, this lifestyle is, as much for her as for them, a risk to any hope of a long-term relationship.
Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice is in competition at the Locarno International Film Festival, Switzerland, where it made its world premiere.