DIRECTED BY: Claude Chabrol
FEATURING: Sylvia Kristel, Charles Vanel, Fernand Ledoux
PLOT: After leaving her husband, Alice Caroll’s travels leave her stranded during a storm; she ends up at a mysterious mansion populated by odd characters, discovering that she can’t leave.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Your present author stumbled upon Alice or the Last Escapade on Tubi, and I could not shake the feeling that “366 Weird Movies should have this one already.” That’s because Alice or the Last Escapade brings to mind several movies already in our canon. First, the sparse “Alice in Wonderland” elements give the story a thin fairy tale flavor. French director Chabrol (himself often described as “the French Hitchcock”) dedicates the film to the memory of Fritz Lang. We have a classic ontological mystery in which a character is trapped by strange forces without explanation. A few reviews of this movie even compare it to Luis Buñuel‘s The Exterminating Angel. I can see that, but more importantly, there is one specific movie on The List, a seminal cult classic, which I dare not mention lest I spoil the movie, because Alice or the Last Escapade has the exact same plot and ending.
COMMENTS: If you ask me, the best comparison for Alice is an hour-and-a-half long “Twilight Zone” episode. Alice Caroll (Sylvia Kristel) leaves her annoying bore of a husband to set out on the road. Driving at night, she finds herself in the classic Euro-Gothic plot: stranded at night with car trouble during a storm, forced to seek refuge at a strange mansion. The inhabitants of said mansion welcome Alice and insist she stay overnight, even offering to fix her car for free. But in the morning, Alice tries to leave, only to be confronted by reality-warping events that prevent her departure. There’s a “broken” clock which starts up at odd hours and seems to control other events in the house. The same view is visible out the front door and the back. She tries to trace her way around the property wall only to discover that the gate has vanished. When she does drive around, all roads lead back to the mansion. Meanwhile the mansion is populated by oddball characters who speak in riddles and have odd rules about conversation, such as not responding to any direct question.
The “Alice in Wonderland” elements are kept to a minimum. We have the protagonist’s name, of course; the checkered floor tiles in some rooms suggest a chessboard; a gentleman dressed all in white confronts Alice in the surrounding woods. Alice’s meals and tea are left prepared for her by an unseen entity, but aren’t specifically labeled “eat me” and “drink me.” The wake/dance party she encounters stands in for a “mad tea party.” Among elements definitely not drawn from Lewis Carroll, we get a single nude scene, when Alice gets lectured by a ghostly voice in the bath. (This blink-and-you-miss-it scene is there just to remind people that Sylvia Kristel used to play Emmanuelle.) Otherwise, there are no hints of sexuality to the proceedings; this movie seems designed as a vehicle for Kristel to demonstrate her advanced acting chops—which aren’t much to write home about, truth be told. But at least her character is no pushover. Alice quickly learns the arbitrary rules of her captivity, and even turns the mansion inhabitant’s own conversational rules back at them, as she schemes to figure out the situation and find loopholes.
Alice or the Last Escapade did not fare well at the box office, and is seen today as a one-off venture for director Chabrol, who had an extensive and otherwise successful career. Actress Kristel stated in interviews that she thought the movie would have fared better with more nudity. I disagree; the movie would have fared better if it took more chances and pulled out the weird stops. For being made in 1977, it feels like a much later movie made from parts of other popular weird cinema. As it stands, this is more of a slow-burn “comfort weird” movie, to be enjoyed in the good faith that it treads ground already familiar to those who have extensively explored our canon.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In the incredibly varied oeuvre of director Claude Chabrol there are few films as bizarre as Alice ou la dernière fugue, a dark, hallucinatory fairy tale in which fantasy and reality become intertwined to chilling effect… a haunting excursion into an Escher-like dreamscape from which there is no possibility of escape.”–James Travers, FrenchFilms.org