Old sailor’s lore says it’s bad luck to have a woman or a corpse on board a ship. And when your captain turns out to be your ex-boyfriend, batten down the hatches! A storm is brewing.
So goes the engaging scenario of Lucie Borleteau’s “Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey.” As far as modern seafaring odysseys go, it spends a lot of time in the doldrums. Modern-day commercial seafaring has not inspired many memorable movies — only Alain Tanner’s “In the White City” (1983) and “Captain Phillips” (2013) come to mind. Borleteau’s resembles Tanner’s masterpiece in its slow pacing and occasional striking image, but when it comes to compelling characters and deep themes it runs adrift.
One such striking image occurs at the beginning: Alice (Ariane Labed, who has the angular intensity of Charlotte Gainsbourg), shot from high above, swims naked like a water nymph. Her boyfriend, Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie), watches entranced. But their idyll is short lived: In a bit of clever gender role twisting, it’s Alice who heads off to sea and sad Felix remains behind waiting.
Aboard the cargo ship Fidelio, wearing overalls and lugging a monkey wrench, she works in an engine room reminiscent of “Das Boot.” Sometimes she stares at the blank face of the sea, perhaps pondering the virtue alluded to by the ship’s name. But Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), the ship’s captain and her former lover, is an unavoidable presence, and she’s sorely tempted to stray. So she writes besotted e-mails to her boyfriend. She masturbates. And she drinks and carouses with the rest of the crew, just like one of the guys. In fact, despite being torn between two men, being part of the crew seems to be what Alice really wants. That wish to join the company of men makes her relationship with the captain even more difficult, though no more interesting.
Instead, the diary of the dead guy in the freezer, which Alice steals and reads, is more compelling. Written like the voice-over of a very existential French film of the ’60s, the diary’s descriptions of ennui and loneliness make Alice’s fretting about whom to sleep with seem frivolous. This Odyssey sails in shallow waters.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.