Saturday, February 16, 2019

Alice or the Last Escapade / Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977)

I’ve been a fan of Alice in Wonderland since I was a kid, although I didn’t read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books until I was an adult, which was prompted by my first viewing of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988), and ever since reading them I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about keeping an eye out for films inspired by or adapted from the books, which was what attracted me to the French surrealist film Alice or the Last Escapade in the first place. I thought the film did a pretty good job at creating an interesting new take on Alice in Wonderland (without actually being about Alice in Wonderland) while also being a bit derivative and having an ending that viewers will no doubt have seen before that I still thought was beautifully executed. It’s also very much of the ‘70s Eurocult sensibility and a product of its time, but it feels like there’s also a little something here for everyone, including the curious Alice in wonderland fan (who doesn’t mind a lightly inspired non-adaptation), and even the surreal, the arthouse, or even the gothic horror fan.
 

I’ve only seen a few films from French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol (specifically Alice or the Last Escapade, Le Bonnes Femmes (1960), and This Man Must Die (1969)), but from what I understand, Alice or the Last Escapade is supposedly a departure from Chabrol’s usual style and is a foray into the more aesthetically surreal brand of storytelling/filmmaking involving a beautiful albeit tragic female muse-like lead and a co-starring mansion, sort of along the lines of Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) and Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973) but without most of those directors’ particular characteristics.



Being a fan of so many different genres in movies, music, and video games, I’ve honestly never been bothered by seemingly endless different takes on the same trope; it’s how the creators approach it with new interpretations, developments, and personal signatures that help keep the product from seeming too cliché, and despite the familiarities that are all over the place, Alice or the Last Escapade manages to hardly ever feel too cliché.


Another major draw here is the appealing presence of Sylvia Kristel in the leading role as Alice Carroll. Viewers do get to spend the entirety of the film with Kristel during her escapade into a sometimes startling but mostly relaxing sojourn of isolated leisure and interspersed encounters with poor conversationalists, who seem to be trying to be as enigmatic and least helpful as possible. She’s seemingly trapped in a kind of beautiful green but still nightmarish at times dreamland, with a mansion at its core that itself is quite generous, laying out food and tea for her, and even fixing her car, not to mention classical vinyl records and a plethora of books for her to consume. Her windy, spooky first night at the mansion suggests that horrors await her, but come morning, she’s all alone in a sunny, well-tended mansion and there’s bread and butter and tea laid out for her, and later she’s greeted with raw pork chops that she gets to butter and cook to her liking.



Understandably, Alice is not happy. After a few futile attempts to escape the mansion grounds, repeatedly ending up in the same place or following an insurmountable wall and coming full circle, she seems to reluctantly accept her situation for the time being. The place won’t let her go (a little like Hill House not letting Eleanor go). Is being trapped in a reality of leisure and peace, isolated from the real world, really a life worth living? How long will it last before you’d become permanently detached from reality?... Here I am, asking questions, a violation of the film’s central rule, NO QUESTIONS, as several characters who appear out of the blue remind Alice whenever she questions her startling new situation, kind of like the first and second rule of Project Mayhem ;).


The pendulum clock in her bedroom seems to be an indicator of when the hauntings come. Things get tumultuous when the pendulum starts to swing, and Alice gets the idea one day to try and flee the mansion when the clock starts up, and whatever it is that’s keeping her there tries to hold on to her, as space and time distort (an interesting visual post-editing effect), and Alice is pulling herself against indoor wind along the floor to get out. She floors her vehicle out the gate in time, eventually leading up to what I thought was the most memorable and funny part, involving a bonkers crowd at a homely looking restaurant she stops in (a tea party counterpart?), where Alice pretty much realizes she’s still a prisoner in whatever reality has trapped her (like a never-ending trip or dream) before consigning herself back to the old mansion again.



There might be a little too much not going on most of the time, but I really enjoy the surreal nature and ambiance of the entire film, and Sylvia Kristel is an absolute delight; she really is wonderful for the part, and you do get a sense of concern for her. I like Alice’s way of rebelling against some of the other characters by staying hardened and not answering any of their questions either; they seem to admire her for this.


The film really is a visual masterpiece. Elegant, classical images are presented in all their brilliant luster, as cinematographer Jean Rabier follows Kristel in varying wardrobe with his camera, exploring the mansion and its grounds, overgrown with green, inside and out, a strange reality that seems to be in operation just for her. At one point, Alice strikes a nude pose that resembles Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus


So, what is the movie trying to say? Or, what does it mean? Of course, it could mean a lot of things, especially to different viewers, and I enjoy finding meaning in movies as much as anyone else, but I’m going to sit this one out and choose to play along with this movie’s game and cease asking questions at this point. A reader and friend of mine Terence once pointed out to me that there is a reference to Rene Magritte’s Therapist painting during the part where Alice talks to the enigmatic boy who carries a bird cage dressed-up like that resembling the one from the Magritte painting. The boy likes to liberate birds in his cage one at a time; I like to think he is freeing souls from captivity. He too does not answer questions. As another character puts it, “questions are useless… when there are no answers.” There’s a quote from Magritte that resonates with this film: “when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” -Rene Magritte 

© At the Mansion of Madness



 

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