Thursday, March 13, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Claude Chabrol's Alice (1977)

Before I say a few words on Claude Chabrol’s Alice (a.k.a. Alice and the Last Escapade) (1977) I should note that the copy I saw was a German dubbed print with no English subtitles. Not the ideal way to see it but the obscurity that has unjustly fallen on this lovely and strange film makes this version sadly the only game in town right now.

I have wanted to see Alice for around fifteen years, so it was with a lot of excitement that I finally got to view it last night. Despite the lack of subtitles and the fact that I can’t speak a word of German, I found Chabrol’s mystifying film to be a completely engrossing and memorable experience and I am not at all disappointed even though I had built the film up to near impossible heights in my mind.

Chabrol is so closely connected to the thriller film these days that it is easy to forget that the man has worked in nearly every conceivable genre. This is after all a director who has made more than seventy films with only a portion of those made up of the nail-biters so many think of when his name is muttered. That said, Alice plays out like no other Cabrol film I have ever seen. Dedicated to Fritz Lang and more than a little inspired by the literary works Lewis Carrol and Jorge Luis Borges, Chabrol’s film made me think of any number of Jean Rollin films while watching it as well as Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortal and Malle’s Black Moon. At times it seemed like Chabrol was channeling all of the above while still amazingly enough making this very much a Claude Chabrol film, with his camera movements and framing being totally recognizable and not all that far removed from the long and languid takes in Le Boucher that I wrote on a few weeks ago.

Alice, centering on an unhappy wife who leaves her husband only to find herself trapped in some sort of weird and unending maze, was made right after Chabrol’s 1976’s The Twist, an odd entry in his filmography that would see him working with an international cast including Ann-Margret and Bruce Dern. Alice would return his cinema to a much more rural European feel and would team him with one of France’s biggest box-office stars of the seventies, my much beloved Sylvia Kristel who delivers her best performance here, with her work in Borowczyk’s La Marge excepted.

Kristel was on an amazing role in 1977, a she had just finished up working with Vadim, Robbe-Grillet and Borowczyk when she came into Chabrol’s world. It’s hard to think of an actor working for so many of Europe’s top directors near simultaneously who was granted so little respect at the time or since. It is easy to see why though as the French distributors always marketed these films, even Alice, centering on Sylvia’s past role as Emmanuelle. Ironically her most legendary role is the one that stopped her from the career that she should have had and one that, in 1977 at least, it looked like she was going to have.

Alice is very much Chabrol’s not so thinly veiled take on Carrol’s Alice In Wonderland. Kristel’s character is even named Alice Carol so it’s not like anyone on the production was hiding from the fact. Even not understanding any of the dialogue (which really hurts the opening and closing of the film) it is fun to pick out the many references to Carrol’s literary world in this loving and economical take on it where a busted windshield stands in for a looking glass and instead of a white rabbit we get a deceptively charming older French gentleman serving up a nightcap instead of a magic pill.

Alice worked best for me in the remarkable middle section where we are treated to scene after scene of Sylvia lost outside on a seemingly never-ending French countryside and then inside some beautifully strange and distorted older manors. Almost dialogue free in these sections, Chabrol’s camera follows Kristel’s Alice through an unending world of dead-ins in often wide open spaces that leads to a predictable but no less than thrilling conclusion that harkens back to Carnival Of Souls as much as the works of Robbe-Grillet, Rollin and Malle previously mentioned.

The film is simply gorgeous to look at, thankfully my copy was widescreen and fairly sharp, thanks to Chabrol’s usual cinematographer Jean Rabier. In fact, the same recognizable names that you see on many of Chabrol’s films are present for this rare foray into fantasy for him, including composer Pierre Jansen (whose music here has a wonderful nightmarish quality about it) to editor Monique Fardoulis. Special note has to go to Maurice Sergent’s production design, which is really spectacular here. Alice would prove one of the final films for the talented Sergent, who had done such memorable work for Ferreri and Buneul in the late sixties and early seventies.

The cast that surrounds Kristel is full of surprises and features legendary Silent film actor Charles Vanel, award-winning Andre Dussollier, veteran Fernand Ledoux and Chabrol’s own 13-year-old son Thomas, who gives one of the films most memorable performances.

I found Kristel herself to be as heartbreakingly good here as everything I have seen her in during this period. I am always amazed to see her described as a poor actress as I find her work to always be so subtle, vulnerable and downright moving. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s one nude scene when she is seen staring sadly into a bathroom mirror. It’s one of the most empathetic moments of Chabrol’s career as he has her seated in a wicker chair (that is of course an allusion to her most famous role) but this time the eroticism has a bruising and sad quality…like his camera was sensing that she wouldn’t ever be able to overcome that famous role from Just Jaeckin’s film. The scene is totally silent and then there is a sudden noise that alerts her that she might be being watched. Instead of searching the house though, she stands totally nude and stares directly into Chabrol’s camera, aware that no one else is there and that is just the gaze of an out of reach audience who she, and her body, can’t ever totally escape from.

The film is filled with moments like that, although none perhaps quite so devastating. Chabrol loads the film with shots of Kristel’s own point of view and then direct shots of her. He’s aware that the connection Sylvia had to her audience was a strange and powerful one and he plays up to it over and over again…Alice plays like a poignant ode to a slipping icon as much as anything else and, in all of the film’s I have seen by Chabrol, I have never found his camera quite so sympathetic as here and it gives the film an added layer of resonance that is missing from most of his other lesser work.

I can’t even begin to fathom why Alice is so hard to come by. To my knowledge it has never been granted an official home video release anywhere. The fact that it is a Chabrol film alone makes its unavailability an incredible oversight, but add on that it is a truly powerful and haunting experience, makes its current missing in action status near criminal. Alice is, along with a handful of other titles, one of the great-lost European art films of the seventies.

I can only imagine what my opinion will be of the film once I do get to see an English sub-titled or dubbed version of it, since several key sequences are extremely dialogue heavy. The fact that I was so taken with this film even with the language barrier I think speaks heavily to the power of it. I can only hope that some enterprising company has the good sense to release it someday.

I will be posting more screenshots from this production in the next few days at Harry Moseby Confidential as well as Sylvia Kristel Fans.


Steve Langton said...

This reads like a real must-see and it's a crying shame it's not available in a subtitled version. Hopefully this will be rectified sometime soon. Thanks for alerting us to this film.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

This definitely sounds like it is a film that people should be able to see. I've often wondered about it. Sylvia is a fantastic actress. It bothers me that she never has gotten the fame and recognition that she so richly deserved. She looks absolutely beautiful here. I love the screenshots. The one of her in the wicker chair is exquisite. I do hope that a version of this, with subtitles, will hit dvd in the near future.

aaron said...

"It’s hard to think of an actor working for so many of Europe’s top directors near simultaneously who was granted so little respect at the time or since."

This is dead-on.

Have you seen the Emmanuelle episode of (UK documentary series) "The Dark Side of Porn"? I'm sure it goes over much the same information as her autobiography, but it's so, so tragic to see Kristel struggling so much after being such a consummate force in this late '70s period.

Robert Monell said...

I'm hot on the trail of an Eng language version of this. Should know more later. Thanks for the compelling review and images. I'll mention your blog when I review LES BICHES in the near future. Too bad this couldn't have been in the Chabrol set a few years ago.

Jeremy Richey said...

My apologies for getting back to everyone.

Thanks Steve,
I would love to see a subtitled version of this so hopefully that will happen eventually...

Thanks Keith,
totally agree on Sylvia and glad you enjoyed the shots...

Thanks Aaron,
I don't think I have seen that show but I would love too...the recent re-release of Emmanuelle here had two really great documentaries but no Sylvia interview which was incredibly disappointing. She is thankfully on teh out of Print Anchor Bay sets though...have you seen the film Alex Cox made about teh Emmanuelle films called A Hard Look. I have really been wanting to see that and wish it was more widely available...

Thanks Robert,
Really looking forward to your post on Les Biches (possibly my favorite Chabrol)...please let me know if you track down an English friendly version of Alice...

thanks again to you all...

Anonymous said...

Fine review; I've just watched the movie and agree with most of what you wrote.

That book Alice is reading is Jorge Luis Borges' Fictions, isn't it? I can't read the author's name, but it makes sense given the movie's exploration of infinity and paradoxes.