Saturday, June 27, 2009

THE ESCAPEES (1981) d. Jean Rollin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Quirky character pairings made even more dynamic by the thespians that portray those roles have been a plot device and story vehicle as long as the Big and Small Screens have been around. Whether it was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon or even Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, pairing two performers for comedic or dramatic effect can be a powerful strategy. When your duo are a pair of young women who are also unstable escapees from a mental institution, the nature of your story and its impact is going to be quite dissimilar from the average acting/performing tandem. Add to that the well-known directorial skills and idiosyncratic tastes of Jean Rollin and you know you’re likely to be viewing something not representative of your average flick. Such is the “lost” motion picture THE ESCAPEES, which is uneven and atypical of Monsieur Rollin, but still an addition to his canon that may delight the more avid of his fans.

THE ESCAPEES is the tale of Marie and Michelle, two very young women who seize a chance at flight from the insane asylum in which they are imprisoned. Marie is a deeply damaged and therefore only partially socially competent person, whose dreamy and fearful outlook on life makes her clingy and timid. Michelle is a spirited and combative tigress wrestling with her own demons, but very much interested in living life to the fullest. After their initial escape, the two ingénues, meet up with a traveling burlesque troupe run by Maurice and board with them briefly in an attempt to set off across France. Later, the girls make the acquaintance of Sophie and her lover Pierrot who promise to smuggle them aboard a freighter heading for exotic locales and a date with destiny. Before Marie and Michelle can stowaway on their ship of fortune, an act of impetuosity lands them in a circle of debauchery and their final lot is cast, leaving them at the end of their road in one of the bleakest endings possible.

THE ESCAPEES is a serious departure in style, content and tone for Jean Rollin, a director best known for his erotic horror films and supernatural skin flicks. THE ESCAPEES is considered to be “lost” for many good reasons, but despite some obvious weaknesses it has some very enjoyable characteristics so very typical of a Jean Rollin film. Like all of his previous movies, THE ESCAPEES is well shot and shows particular attention to careful composition, thoughtful camera angles, a mix of wide shots and close-ups, as well as some compelling examinations of the minutiae of transient life. What keeps M. Rollin’s work from being as strong as it normally can be is the inconsistent quality of the film print, transfer, which is a bit dark and grainy at times and marred with lines at very infrequent intervals. Worse were M. Rollin’s settings in most cases throughout the film. The vast majority of the exteriors were a mix of slate gray and other dull shades mirrored in dreary swatches of sea, sky and street. Most of the “street” scenes were equally lacking in visual vibrancy. The hallmark of most of Jean Rollin’s films was splashes of color, deeply fascinating architectural and landscape elements, but that is missing in THE ESCAPEES. Only the pastoral country exteriors of the opening segments of the film and the interiors of Madame Louise’s nightclub/domicile had any real dynamism to their visual elements. Without his customary aesthetics, one of the great pillars of his film-making prowess was weakened. The real visual strength of THE ESCAPEES can be found in the loving cinematography of the beauty of the three main female character’s faces. Between their long and shining hair, their profound and soulful eyes and their full and sensuous lips, Marie, Michelle and Sophie are a visual delight for anyone who enjoys the feminine glory of Gallic femmes. What is missing from M. Rollin’s usual paean to the exquisiteness of women is his penchant for nudity. It is only in the last acts of the movie that all of the principal and some of the secondary female characters are either partially or totally disrobed. For a Jean Rollin film, this is another immense diversion from the norm.

The great strength of THE ESCAPEES was its focus on characters, their personas and the interaction between them. The great trio of Marie, Michelle and Sophie are deeply engaging for their powerful inner natures and their painful frailties. Marie’s ethereal and haunted affect and her drifting, lost soul behavior make her both sympathetic and unapproachable. Michelle is filled with barely suppressed rage and bitterness making her initially unsympathetic but as the plot meanders forward, she becomes a deeper and more alluring character. Her strange mix of impulsive fury and youthful lack of self-confidence make Michelle a more complex if not as interesting a character as Marie. Then there is Sophie, a fresh-faced and exuberant pickpocket with dreams of freedom and joy as lofty as a philosopher. Her idealism is grounded by the street-wise nature of Michelle and the weighty emotional struggles of Marie, and yet the three seem to work as an amorphous unit that you can’t help but root for despite the knowledge that disaster can’t be far away. What keeps this rather interesting character study from being as gripping as it could be was a plot that wandered at best, crawled slowly through its runtime at worst and came perilously close to being miserably dull. It is only at the end that any violence and gore was to be seen, which is also highly atypical of a Jean Rollin film. Most of the rest of THE ESCAPEES is surprisingly PG-rated and if it weren’t for the deeply somber tone and earnestness of the look at people on the fringes of society, the first two-thirds of this movie would not be something that couldn’t be viewed on TV except for the burlesque routines. This was also another dramatic left-turn for Jean Rollin, for his earlier films always seemed to border on hedonistic, but THE ESCAPEES feels Spartan and solemn, sometimes bordering on dismal. Certainly the last act is a punishingly dark look at the wrong turns life can take. In the end, THE ESCAPEES is a contemplative movie, but one lacking in the necessary punctuation points that relieve the starkness of the poignant panorama that is depicted. Without that colorful dappling, the cinematic palette is not quite as exciting as it could have been.

The extras menu of THE ESCAPEES is a trifle small but still worthwhile. There is a Stills Gallery which evidences the same stylishness that the usual Redemption bonus features typically display. The ubiquitous set of Redemption Trailers can also be viewed, all of which I had seen before. The Great Gemstone of this set of supplements section is the 28 minute “Exclusive Jean Rollin Interview” from 2008, set partly in a Parisian cemetery. While somewhat inconsistently paced, this interview sheds a great deal of light on M. Rollin’s thoughts and recollections of THE ESCAPEES as well as some of his other films. For the Jean Rollin fan, this interview is a “must-have” and helps to spice up what is otherwise a slightly less zesty DVD.

THE ESCAPEES is not a bad film, but it is a cautionary tale of what happens to directors when they change their style as movie-going tastes, mores of a decade and social interests shift. Just as I can never just stop writing and suddenly become a ballet dancer, once a director has carved a path for themselves in the motion picture landscape, they can’t just abandon what made them successful and strike off in the direction of a trail that doesn’t really exist. THE ESCAPEES is praiseworthy for being a brave experiment on the part of a man who was unafraid to tackle some taboo topics, but it is also just as disappointing for not being as good as it should have been.

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