The ironic naming of the cargo ship that director Lucie Borleteau uses in Fidelio: Alice’s Journey (2014) comes into view as the ‘Fidelio’ departs the port of Marseille for the first time. Employed as the literal and figurative vessel for the emotional and spiritual odyssey undertaken by the film’s eponymous voyager (Ariane Labed) it is mechanically unreliable, seeming to have more faulty parts than functional ones from the outset. Indeed, a member of the crew has died in suspicious circumstances before the anchor was cast.
Furthermore, the ship’s quarters will witness Alice’s infidelity to a devoted “amoureux” who she leaves behind for a seafaring long lost flame, Gael (Melvil Poupaud), now captain of the vast floating set of this solid debut feature film. Fidelio succeeds in presenting a strong, albeit emotionally wayward, female lead in an environment dominated entirely by men. Much the same can be said for a sure-footed directorial performance, Borleteau choosing the ferociously loud, hot, dirty and dangerous engine rooms and cramped cabins of an enormous tanker to explore an intimate and very personal journey: the sexual understanding of the only woman onboard.
Alice proves her professional capability and, perhaps due in large part to the female perspective behind the camera, it is refreshing that sexism is non-existent and the sole unwanted advance is dealt with discreetly but firmly. Her steely composure is, however, easily broken by the introduction of Gael. Their inevitable reunion is held off longer than might be expected, but tongues begin wagging and a nudie pic left on her phone causes discomfort for Alice and heartbreak for the betrayed Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie) on dry land. Elsewhere, other than dealing with moments of crisis, routine and daily tasks are left by the wayside with the crew at the mercy of ‘The Company’ whose orders change as frequently as the tide. Snippets of conversation amongst the men over card games, beers and moments of quiet contemplation allude to the hardships of a life at sea and the ill effects on familial relationships.
Fidelio achieves a greater psychological depth in the words left behind by the former occupant of Alice’s cabin. Le Gall, whose death hangs over the fortunes of the ship throughout and perturbs the Filipino members of the crew in particular, wrote a diary of his experiences at sea, frequent rendez-vous with girls at port and the suggestion of health issues – which may, or may not, have led to his “accident”. The moral slippery slope of reading a dead man’s diary aside, Alice finds in its pages a way to better understand her own perceptions of true love and that more than one great romance can be had in a lifetime. Whether or not she will achieve this is left open to interpretation but Fidelio: Alice’s Journey remains far more concerned with navigating a character arc than the points on a compass. It’s an assured effort from Borleteau that certainly warrants an eye on the horizon to see what she offers up next.