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Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey

Distributed by First Run Features, 630 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1213, New York, NY 10036; 212-243-0600
Produced by Marine Arrighi de Casanova and Pascal Caucheteux
Directed by Lucie Borleteau
DVD , color, 97 min.
College - General Adult
Merchant Vessels, Sexuality

Reviewed by Andy Horbal, University of Maryland Libraries

Date Entered: 9/6/2017

Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey begins with a shot of a woman (protagonist Alice, played by Greek actress Ariane Lebed) swimming naked. A few moments later her boyfriend (Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie) speaks the film’s first line of dialogue: “I like your pussy.” Based on this opening, viewers could be forgiven for expecting a throwback to the glory days of European arthouse erotica; however, from the moment Alice, a marine engineer, arrives on board the trading ship Fidelio (where she’s been hired to replace a crew member named Le Gall who died mid-voyage), it’s clear that this isn’t at all what first-time feature film director Lucie Borleteau intends to deliver.

The Fidelio is introduced shrouded in fog, visible mostly as a dark silhouette with ghostly lights hovering over it. Soon after we discover that Le Gall’s body is still on board, that Alice will be sleeping in his room (where she discovers his diary), that the crew has nicknamed the engine he was working on when he died the “Demonia,” and that Alice has shipped on the Fidelio before, although it was then known as the Eclipse (which not coincidentally is the title of a 1961 film by Michelangelo Antonio). The haunting theme and the thicket of references that these initial scenes establish are every bit as important as anything that follows.

Of course, to be sure, a lot of what comes next does turn out to be sex. It’s sex with a purpose, though. It drives the plot, as when Alice resumes an affair with her captain Gaël (Melvil Poupaud) which started when she was a cadet serving on the same vessel, or when she rebuffs the advances of her chief engineer Frédéric (Nathanaël Maďni); it serves as a sort of lingua franca for the ship’s multicultural crew, who bond over raunchy table talk and photos of their shore-leave conquests; and it also reveals how much distance can remain even between ostensibly close friends, which is evident in the vast difference between the way Le Gall describes himself in his diary entries and how his shipmates talk about him.

It’s also noteworthy that Alice’s sexual identity is already fully formed at the beginning of the film. She knows what she wants: the difficulty is satisfying her desires without anyone getting hurt, a challenge compounded by the fact that as a woman trying to make her way in a professional world dominated by men, she’s unfairly held to a different standard by her co-workers. With so much going on, the sex scenes are never merely titillating.

This level of subtlety is uncommon in a debut feature. So is the skill apparent in the handling of a talented and accomplished international cast, confidence to shoot much of the film on an actual ship at sea, and eye for the kinds of details and rituals that bring an unfamiliar environment like a ship’s engine room to life. More than just a well-made film which deals with subjects relevant to any number of academic disciplines, Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey is an announcement that Lucie Borleteau is a name to watch out for.