Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977)

... aka: Alice
... aka: Alice or the Last Escapade

Directed by:
Claude Chabrol

Prolific French director Chabrol's loose adult interpretation of Lewis Carroll's children's classic Alice in Wonderland went unnoticed in its day and continues to go unnoticed to this day despite the pedigree of its acclaimed director (who was often compared to Hitchcock by critics) and the notoriety of star Sylvia Kristel; who was fresh off her international success in Just Jaeckin's lush soft-core hit Emmanuelle (1974) when she took on this role. And its obscurity is pretty easy to understand once you actually sit down and watch the dreary finished product. Alice Carroll decides to get "far, far away" from her inattentive, self-absorbed husband Bernard (Bernard Rousselet) after just five years of marriage. On a dark and stormy night, Alice takes off in her car. While driving down a stretch of vacant country road, her windshield mysteriously shatters and she's forced to pull over. Noticing a gate, she makes her way to a secluded mansion. She's invited inside by the hospitable Henri Vergennes (Charles Vanel), who lets her warm herself by a fire, feeds her and then offers her a play to stay for the night. Despite initial reluctance, Alice agrees. Servant Colas (Jean Carmet) shows her to her bedroom. Inside is a clock that's stopped. Colas notes "We don't care too much about time here."

When Alice awakens from her sleep, she notices some strange, subtle changes about her surroundings. She appears to be in a different place and the mansion is vacant, but someone's left coffee and breakfast for her. When she goes outside, she notices the windshield on her car has also been repaired. Attempting to leave, Alice finds the only road out is blocked, so she decides to walk and realizes that a very tall stone wall surrounds the entire property and there's no gate. A man dressed in white appears out of the woods and tells her not to ask him any questions and not to touch him before he disappears. Now trapped inside and with no other real option, Alice is forced to go back to the house, where a sinister-sounding disembodied voice warns her not to leave. A fireplace starts by itself, fixings are left for her dinner and other odd people show up. A man dressed in black appears and tells her "Questions are useless... when there are no answers" and keeps talking about other people who'd come there prior to Alice and how they weren't quite so well behaved. A little boy notes that birds are stupid because they can't even figure out how to leave a cage when the door is left wide open.

All of the highly secretive and bizarre people Alice meets speak in riddle and hide their names and true identities. They all seem to know her name, though, despite the fact she hasn't told them. Wind blows her across the room, a snail appears on her windshield, dead birds are found all over the roads, images ripple and are distorted, and she finally manages to escape the grounds, only to find the people she meets outside the gate at a gas station and a cafe are just as strange as the ones she met at the mansion. Has Alice stumbled upon a haunted house? Has she somehow entered into another dimension? Is she dead and this is what the afterlife is like? Has she gone mad? The secret lies behind a locked door in the mansion...

A very slow-paced and somber film, this defies easy categorization and has elements of drama, mystery, fantasy and horror all at play. It's technically well-made, nicely photographed by Jean Rabier and Chabrol manages to ratchet up a high amount of intrigue and suspense during the first half, but sadly it's not well sustained for the duration and the events grow tiresome and repetitive. In fact, the end revelation; which is so predictable that revealing it won't even really spoil anything, has been swiped directly out of the creepy cult classic Carnival of Souls (1962). There are many long, dull, dialogue-free sequences of our heroine simply walking around the grounds and inside the home. Allusions to the Alice story are numerous, but don't expect anything in the way of special effects, strange animals and creatures, elaborate fantasy art direction or the like. This is set almost entirely inside a dark, gloomy mansion and its surrounding property, and many reflections of the story are done strictly via costume color and the concentration on doorways and food and drink consumption.

As far as Kristel is concerned, she's nice to look at - and has a customary nude scene - but doesn't do anything here to really change my opinion of her being more of a model than an actress. Her "Alice" is supposed to be strong-willed and tough, but Kristel usually just comes across as vacant. Her exposure in the aforementioned Emmanuelle not only led to starring roles in other Euro sex films (including numerous Emmanuelle sequels) but also artier ones like this and others for the likes of Alain Robbe-Grillett, Roger Vadim and Fons Rademakers. An attempt at American crossover success failed after several high profile flops like the all-star disaster movie The Concorde: Airport '79 (1979) and the Maxwell Smart comedy The Nude Bomb (1980). She went back to soft-core and scored a few more hits in the 80s like Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981) and Private Lessons (1981). As she reached middle age in the 90s, her decreasing sex appeal and the fact her acting didn't improve much, saw her fading from the public eye and she quietly passed away with little press attention in 2012.


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