Alice and the Mayor is an intriguing little film that I found both interesting and enjoyable. It doesn’t appear to have been released in cinemas in the UK or US but is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. Again, as with the Indian films on MUBI, there is little in the way of extras, just one review. I wonder if it is a problem with cinephiles who don’t seem to have much interest in ‘everyday politics’? Not that this is a realist film about politics in any way but it does raise a number of questions and one or two moments did ring true for me.
The writer-director Nicolas Pariser is here making only his second feature after working as a film critic and earlier spending a fair amount of time as a postgraduate student. He reveals that the film is actually the result of melding three different story ideas and producing a final narrative that he tackles with reference to an approach associated with Éric Rohmer, Pariser’s only film tutor at the Sorbonne. Rohmer himself made a film about a Socialist mayor, L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque in 1993.
The story is set roughly around 2014-15 during the François Hollande Presidency of France and ends with a coda set during the Macron Presidency (i.e. post 2017). The national picture is not directly relevant except that the central character of the Mayor of Lyon is a senior Socialist Party figure and therefore a potential presidential candidate. Lyon is the second or third major French city depending on how boundaries are drawn and it is interesting for me to compare it with Greater Manchester in the UK, in a similar position in terms of size and importance. Manchester too now has a mayor, Andy Burnham, a Labour Party politician. Mayors as executive (i.e. not simply ceremonial) leaders constitute a relatively new phenomenon in the UK and Burnham is now arguably the second most powerful directly elected political figure after the London mayor. ‘Paul Théraneau’ (Fabrice Luchini) probably has more direct local power in Lyon than his UK counterparts. The ‘inciting incident’ of the film’s narrative is the arrival of Alice Heimann (Anaïs Demoustier) in a new post in the mayor’s office. Slightly bewildered/bemused by what her new job might entail, Alice is informed that the mayor, a seasoned veteran of 30 years in politics, has suddenly lost the ability to think up new ideas. She is charged with stimulating his thinking as an ‘ideas woman’.
This central plot point could lead to different kinds of narratives. The casting of the talented comic actor Fabrice Luchini suggests a comedy with Alice creating mayhem with naïve, revolutionary or simply daft ideas. We are used to British and American parodies or satires of government. But though there are comic moments in Alice and the Mayor, there are also interesting references to literature, philosophy and politics which form the basis for genuine discussion. Alice is not a ‘whizz-kid’ or a ‘policy wonk’. She’s a thoughtful young woman who graduated in Lyon and has recently been studying and teaching in Oxford as a literature scholar. She isn’t pushy and is possibly a little embarrassed by her sudden elevation when the mayor begins to believe that she can really help him. Despite her embarrassment she behaves in a professional manner at all times.
Reflecting on the film after screening it, I think I can see the separate stories that Pariser has put together, or rather I can see three different stories that don’t quite match the three that Pariser mentions in the Press Notes, but I think I’m close enough. One story is about the Mayor and his relationship/friendship with Alice, one is about Alice herself as an intelligent and charming young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life and one is about politics as a contemporary professional practice. Pariser reveals his affection for The West Wing in his presentation of the political machinations in City Hall.
Why did I enjoy the film so much? Partly because I’ve previously enjoyed several Fabrice Luchini films and appreciated his acting skills and partly because I’m an admirer of Ms Demoustier. I knew I’d seen her before and I later realised that she has been in several films by Robert Guédiguian, the Marseilles-based director whose left politics inform his narratives, as well as playing the eponymous character in The New Girlfriend (France 2014). It’s rare these days to come across a film in which genuine political questions are raised. Alice is required to provide the Mayor with ‘notes’ each day. Concise questions, quotations and ideas to get him thinking. At one point she mentions a George Orwell quote about ‘common decency’. This is Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in which he tries to explain what he thinks ordinary working people expect from socialism and contrasts it with the outlook of left intellectuals. Alice intends it to remind the mayor that it is very easy to become too distant from his constituents. Later on Alice talks to an old friend who remarks that some renegades in the Socialist Party have started taking ideas from Orwell and Pier Paulo Pasolini as if this is an apostasy. Alice seems to float above all of this, able to deal efficiently with most of the tasks that the Mayor sets her without becoming involved in any kind of sectarian struggle.
Perhaps the melding of three different narratives and a final coda means that it is difficult to summarise what the film is trying to say and possibly frustrating in terms of its narrative resolution. On the other hand, perhaps the film accurately conveys politics as practice as viewed by someone who approaches it from literature and philosophy? Alice gives the Mayor Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1778) and Bartleby by Melville (1853) with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. But she’s also very aware of ecological issues and able to see through the vanity projects that the Mayor’s search for new ideas is in danger of encouraging. It’s a film for politicos and philosophes but also for those of us who worry about whether Alice will find her own future happiness. Socialism might be struggling in France but surely there is hope for Alice? One last point. I can’t find any stills which deal with Alice’s life outside the Mayor’s office – I think the film’s Press Office have failed on this score.