Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Final Escapade

A friend recently brought up his love for Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, which led to a discussion of its progenitor, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce's story was the grandaddy of all "life flashing before one's eyes" stories, a sort of subset of the "it was all a dream" motif. Much like Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" and Hammett's Red Harvest, "Owl Creek Bridge" has seen its basic tenets hashed and rehashed in numberless stories since its publication.

So it was a sort of odd coincidence that I should happen to throw on Claude Chabrol's Alice ou la dernière fugue (aka. Alice or The Last Escapade, 1977). The film is the tale of Alice Carroll, played by Sylvia Kristel, the Dutch actress best known for her portrayal of the infamously sensual Emmanuelle, who leaves her husband into a torrential downpour in the French countryside. Forced to stop by a cracked windshield, she finds herself welcomed into an old chateau, wherein she has a bizarre series of encounters among the denizens of the grounds while discovering that she can't seem to leave her rest stop. There's no real way to say SPOILER ALERT at this point, but if you look back to the first paragraph, you might just be able to tell where this story goes from there.

As I mentioned, most cineastes and literary fiends are all too familiar with the Bierce plot to experience any sort of surprise at the twist to this particular tale. It makes for unfair bias when looking back to a time before the plot device had become a touch on the hackneyed side. So how does the rest of the film hold up despite that?  That's harder to say. More scholarly critics than myself saw a great depth to this film that I felt it lacked. It's definitely made by the steady, controlled hand of a master: it's beautifully shot, makes fantastic use of its location, has wonderful atmosphere, and was remarkably compelling for how little interaction there is between Kristel and the film's other characters.

However, while it makes stabs at depth, it never seems to make it past an entry level course on philosophy. For fantastic films of possible afterlives, I was instantly reminded of Cocteau's Orpheus films, which I found to have a more artful approach to the material as well a more relatable thoughtfulness about them. I could follow the progression of Chabrol's film, but never felt terribly engaged with the discussion.  Furthermore, the film is also an allusion to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which it also never quite plumbed to any real depth, so that what little tie there was to the celebrated Victorian tale seemed trite. In all, a gorgeous but unsatisfying film...but perhaps, my wondering if it's not I that's missing something says quite a bit in and of itself.

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