There is a character in Alice and the Mayor whose main drive is to speak truth to power. For too long, politicians have ignored the harsh realities of climate change. Their sheer stupidity is putting us all in danger and they are not qualified for the role of office.
But then she gets to air her grievances to mayor Paul Theraneau, and he listens, sympathises. He’s inspired by her passion, while she loses her sense of purpose, shaken by his understanding.
In this interaction, slightly adjacent to the main plot, is the whole film. It says not all people in positions of power are terrible. They are in fact limited by bureaucracy or, as the case may be, a lack of ideas. Airing righteous rage might only be cathartic if the target responds in kind; otherwise, it’s disarming, and all that’s left is a moral high ground with nothing to fix. There’s little modesty, in other words.
That modesty is at the heart of Alice and the Mayor. Theraneau has been in the job so long he’s numb to innovation. He hires Alice, a philosophy student, to feed him ideas so that he can find the way forward in his politics, and for his own sense of identity too. Her first note to him has the word ‘modesty’ highlighted and comes to define much of what follows.
Director Nicolas Pariser has previously worked with left-wing, anti-capitalist narratives, but here his idea of progress (which, Alice says, is something which requires a narrative itself and isn’t just the idea of moving from one spot to another) is more contemplative.
That Theraneau has been in the job a while speaks to the changing political landscape. He wants the city of Lyon to lead the way and to exemplify the success of socialism on the world stage. But what used to inspire people is no longer enough, in a world which is toxic and more divided than ever.
Anaïs Demoustier’s Alice doesn’t want any sympathy, but it’s hard not to feel for how overworked and optimistic she is. On-call at all hours of the day, she uncomfortably straddles the role of an advisor and a therapist for the reenergised mayor, who promptly promotes her to all kinds of work in the local government. She embodies that fresh feeling brought on by a good idea, and so Theraneau places great stock in her insight and presence.
So there are a lot of ideas floating around, which jump in and out of the plot as and when required, not always gracefully. While the ecological confrontation leaves a profound impact about how people on the same side struggle to work together, Alice’s refusal to call an important figure back fizzles out. Once he’s made a display of belittling her, if only to make a young woman still finding her feet in her new role feel uncomfortable, he’s never heard from again.
As Alice moves up through the ranks, she deals with jealousy from colleagues over her status and lavish new office. She never asked for any of that; instead, she just tries to do her job, which at first she barely understands. How is providing ideas a job? She embodies the modesty which the film champions, yet the film is at its darkest when showing how directionless Alice herself is. She’s exhausted from work with no time to nurture relationships, and no idea of what she wants to do in life. It’s easy to see why good people with good intentions often turn their backs on the world of politics.
While it’s a little messy, with the occasional see-what-sticks approach, its heart is in the right place, calling for calm. A comment on how people on the left no longer promote democracy provokes a slight twinge, if only because it’s easy to imagine it going down like a lead balloon on Twitter. But it’s a film promoting a kind of peace, which would ultimately lead to progress on the left – whatever that progress actually looks like. While cinemas are full of superheroes and explosions, it’s a welcome change, told with a spring in its step, believing in optimism and good people able to provide a better future.
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