Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Alice or The Last Escapade (1977)

Lewis Carroll's classic tale, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" gets a psychological horror/thriller/mystery makeover in Claude Chabrol's "Alice or The Last Escapade" (1977). The connection with Carroll's story is only superficial, however, including a reference to Carroll in the name of the title character. The protagonist in Chabrol's film is an adult, and the world she finds herself in is more surreal and spooky, rather than fantastical. 

It all begins with Alice (Sylvia Kristel) listening to her husband rant out his work troubles while munching on some grapes and hardly even looking at her. After he is done, Alice informs him that she couldn't stand him anymore and had decided to leave him. It appears from this little but important sequence, that perhaps, Alice's husband is only a talker and not a listener.

Alice storms out of the house that stormy night, taking along a suitcase and driving off, only to be overpowered by the unrelenting rains. The windshield suddenly breaks and she is forced to pull over at the nearest gate, which happens to be of a plush estate with a large mansion. Her host, a sweet old man, Mr. Vergennes (Charles Vanel) and his butler Colas (Jean Carmet) are most hospitable and they provide her food and shelter for the night.

Come morning, and Alice finds that her car has been fixed; there is coffee and breakfast laid out on the table, but her hosts seem to have mysteriously disappeared! She attempts to pack up and leave, but finds that she is unable to do so, as there no longer seems to be an exit to the estate! As she struggles to escape the property, she encounters some bizarre events and strange characters in the ghostly mansion. Just where exactly has Alice landed herself?

"Alice or The Last Escapade" is unlike any other Chabrol film, and the great filmmaker does a commendable job with a premise outside of his comfort zone. An unsettling, chilling atmosphere dominates every frame, even in scenes shot during the daytime, as for the most part, Alice seems to be the only one around. It's like everyone else has practically vanished from the world. 

An eerie sound design and score contribute to the slow burning tension which escalates, establishes its presence and stays afloat in an elegantly controlled form, thereby leaving the viewer in a wide-eyed state of suspense throughout the film's duration. The cinematography is exquisite with an exemplary use of lights and shadows, rendering a creepy touch to most of the sequences shot in the dimly lit mansion.

There is that familiar horror film cliché of a broken clock that stops and starts functioning at its will, and mostly in a definite time window. "We don't care too much about time around here", Colas the butler quips upon being asked about the clock. It is a rather ominous exchange, which makes one think; could Alice have crossed over to another dimension where time and space, as we know it, don't exist? In an interesting twist, the clock doesn't serve as a mere cliché, once Alice intelligently deduces its purpose!

Chabrol's usual mastery in characterizationis put to good use here in the portrayal of Alice. In a situation like this, one would expect Alice to be a hysterical and sobbing victim. Chabrol betrays viewer expectations, however, and turns predictability over its head by giving Alice an icy cool and mildly arrogant aura. She takes her predicament in her stride with an unusual élan.

Even following the initial realization that she cannot get out, Alice sheds a few tears of fear, but the feisty, headstrong woman that she is, she quickly regains composure, determined not to be licked by her captors. When each one of the weird lot she meets refuses to answer questions saying it is futile to ask, she decides to play by their rules by shutting herself off and refusing to divulge her feelings about the whole thing. The shift of power is noteworthy; the ones supposedly playing her begin to look innocent and nice, while the captive seems strangely unconcerned and grows increasingly smug, subtly taking charge.

With characters like the little boy with a bird cage and via the strange occurrence at the diner, Chabrol subtly hints at the nature of Alice's predicament and what in fact, could be happening to her. A particular episode at the gas station is rather unnerving, but also one that is there for a purpose. None of this is heavy-handed though, and melds in seamlessly with the intriguing narrative until the third act, when a particular sequence does tend to sway a bit on the expository side. The exposition itself is vague, fortunately and doesn't entirely insult the intelligence of the viewers.

While some of the special effects, thankfully used only in a couple of scenes, may have a dated feel, there is no denying that "Alice or The Last Escapade" (1977) is an overlooked, essential Chabrol classic, a genre-bending work that is perhaps, unique to his filmography, and one that needs to be recognized among his best works.

Score: 9/10

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