Go Ask Alice

Last week we were round at our friend and Benshi Film Translator David Wingrove’s for dinner and a movie. The dinner was chicken in a luxurious sauce and the movie was Sylvia Kristel in ALICE, Claude Chabrol’s surreal fantasia from the 70s.

Neither of us Davids care much for Chabrol: David finds the films ugly, I just find them visually staid, and uninvolving. But we make exceptions for baroque curios like TEN DAYS WONDER, a mad thing that acts upon the system like a powerful drug, and now for ALICE, OU LA DERNIÈRE FUGUE too.

I saw Kristel interviewed on TV once when I was a kid. I think she’d just done LADY CHATTERLEY with Nicholas Clay (or should one say, Nicholas Clay had just done Sylvia Kristel in LADY CHATTERLEY) and was talking to some prissy reporter who wanted her to admit that her films were just porn, weren’t they? I can understand this-stuck up attitude must have been irritating, but Kristel’s insistence that no, the EMMANUELLE films were ART, damnit, and this was proven by the fact that they’d been shown on French television, struck me as a bit silly and self-important.

So it was reassuring to hear from David that whenever S.K., in the wake of her softcore triumphs, was invited by a classy director to appear in a “proper” art film, she would start by saying, “You DO know I can’t act?” Made me warm to her.

The evening began slightly shakily when David dropped the dinner on the floor. He was mortified, and we felt very bad for him, but the chicken was rescued and delicious and subsequently acquired a strange resonance with the film we watched, so it was for the best, really. David is an excellent host and it’s always a pleasure to join him for one of these evenings.

ALICE is available only on unsubtitled French DVD, which is a great shame, as it’s more interesting/unusual that the majority of Chabrol’s work. Chabrol haters might dig it, and Chabrol lovers would certainly find it an intriguing departure. But David’s powerful polyglot brain allows him to provide simultaneous translations of films in French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and sort of in German (but if it’s German he has to make most of it up).

Bourgoise Sylvia, as “Alice Carroll”, ditches her boring husband and drives off into a PSYCHO-style rainstorm — the “Last Escapade” of the film’s title? Anyhow, Chabrol drives home the PSYCHO motif by replaying the couple’s last conversation on the soundtrack, and onscreen in a little vignette. Then a broken windscreen* forces her to stop at an Old Dark House where she meets the Old Dark Charles Vanel. Always lovely to meet Vanel, the detective from LES DIABOLIQUES. His crumbling face looks like a one of those decaying stone faces Jules and Jim get so excited about. Or like a cake left out in the rain.

The Crumbler.

Now things get peculiar, in a way reminiscent of Lewis Carroll but without the the humour. Alice is unable to leave — first, a wall encircles the property, then she finds that all roads lead back to the front door. A White Rabbit (well, a white-clad André Dussolier, in mysterioso mode just like in Rivette’s slightly similar LOVE ON THE GROUND) shows up, and like everybody else, refuses to answer questions.

Oh — the film is dedicated to Fritz Lang, and the encircling wall is obviously a DER MUDE TOD homage.

Film references come thick and fast: in her sheer satin nightgown, Kristel moves through the hallways “like a white flame”, as James Whale described Gloria Stuart in THE OLD DARK HOUSE.

Is this some kind of rebuttal to feminism? Is Kristel being punished for wanting to have a life separate from her businessman husband? Virtually all her persecutors in this Wonderland are male. Although Chabrol does eventually wrap his mysteries up in some kind of solution, or at least some kind of structural design, the issue of deeper meaning is never really addressed. But instead we have intriguing and stylishly presented fantasy in a beautiful location, with gorgeous photography and the gorgeous Sylvia. I hadn’t actually registered how stunning she is before, since the image of Emmanuelle is so familiar as to be pretty much invisible, and I haven’t really viewed any of those films (the one where she has plastic surgery and turns into another, worse actress sounds irresistible though). Kristel is so lovely, and her performance so low-key, that the question of whether she can act doesn’t arise — she works in this role, is all I can say.

There’s one nude scene, a sort of sop to Kristel’s fans, or just Chabrol being French? Fiona was impressed with the Kristel rack — not immense, just beautifully sculpted. Fiona considers herself a connoisseur of movie bosoms. It’s easy to see how Chabrol could have pushed the whole film towards erotic fantasy, and it would have ended up like Polanski’s WHAT? Or, he could have heightened the horror movie trappings and it would maybe be more like a Jess Franco or Jean Rollin piece. Instead he lets it drift in an arthouse hinterland, with moments of Cocteau, a flavour of Rivette… it’s not quite fascinating, but very lovely.

Chabrol does Rollin doing Kummel doing Magritte.

Plot twist — Alice escapes from the Mansion of the Doomed, or whatever it is, but now the whole world is infected with the same madness. A Shell service station is downright sinister, and the attendant is a heavily-disguised Dussolier again. A motorway restaurant turns into a stupid riot, the wiatress is jostled, and Alice’s omelet crashes to the floor!

At this point I felt like the film had spilled out of the screen and infected reality — our evening was bracketed by chicken-based products descending violently onto linoleum. As the film ended with an unsurprising Third Policeman-style twist, I wondered if Chabrol’s drowsy nightmare was now loose in the world…

*Oddly, the only complete sentence I recall from French lessons is “Mon par-brise est cassé.”

11 Responses to “Go Ask Alice”

  1. Rather surprised you’re unimpressed by Chabrol. Admittedly he’s not in the first ranks of the “New Wave,” but Le Beau Serge fascinated Fassbinder for good reason. Of his early films I’ve always loved Le Cousins (Brialy at his most teasingly witty), and Les Bonnes Femmes and L’Oeil du Malin are teriffic.

    I have a very special fondness for Marie-Chantal Contre Le Dr. Kha.

    While his critical reputation in the US and the UK rests on Les Bichaes, La Femme Infidele and such, I prefer his Huppert flicks like Violette Noziere and the superb Papin sisters variation La Ceremonie (in which she and Sandrine Bonnaire shot-gun-blast
    Jean-Pierre Cassel and my darling Jackie Bisset. Best of all there’s Betty — a fine salute to his ex, Stephane Audran, a truly teriffic Simenon adaptation, and the best film about alcoholism ever made.

  2. Admittedly, I do need to see more Chabrol! And Alice shows he’s perfectly capable of beautiful images when he wants them (and when the film demands them above all else).

  3. Christoph Huber Says:

    I agree that Alice deserves reevaluation. I like to think of it as Uncle Claude’s wacky version of Carnival of Souls. Two other 70s Chabrols highly recommended are the astonishing La rupture and Nada, since they move past (tho not as plain-crazy as Ten Days Wonder) what you’d expect from Chabrol, whose reputation may be kind of a disservice, since it inevitably focuses on the “repectable” side of his work (which rarely touches the heights of, I agree, La ceremonie andi Les bonnes femmes.

  4. Oh yes, La Rupture is also noteworthy for being a go-for-broke , all-stops-out melodrama, and for its central sequence — a hommage to Murnau’s Sunrise.

  5. Are you talking about the tram scene in La Rupture David E?

    Alice sounds (and looks) fascinating!

    I really, really like Chabrol and have the theory that he is creating flat, almost uninteresting everday worlds and then punctures them with elements that make you view all the previous uninflected moments in a completely different way such as the opening domestic tiff and ending drug trip in La Rupture and so on. I think that works beautifully for twisty murder mystery films as you are constantly being thrown off guard and given a new perspective on what came before as part of the genre mechanics themselves – but Chabrol deemphasises the genre trappings to such an extent that when shocking moments occur in La femme infidele or La Ceremonie they are given much more impact as they truly do seem to come out of nowhere. They don’t, as the rest of the films have been building to it, but it really emphasises the break between the ‘normal’ and the extreme and whether there is much of a difference between the casually nasty games played in Les Biches and the final denoument that she is driven to.

    And on the other end of that there are things like La Boucher where we fully empathise with a killer – perhaps because we never get to see him committing his crimes we can still think of him as a troubled character.

  6. Oh yes the tram sequence. I also like Dr. Popual (which is referenced in, of all things, Spielberg’s Munich) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Mia Farrow and Laura Antonelli. The latter, needless to say, supplies the va-va-voom, while Farrow is made up to look like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. Chabrol arranged the shooting locations in and around his favorite restaurants in the middle east.

  7. Well this is good, I have some good recommendations to be going on with now when I delve deeper into CC’s work. It may be that I’ve been unlucky in my viewing: CC is so extraordinarily prolific and long-lived (I guess he’s outproduced Hitchcock now, in terms of sheer quantity) that he’s bound to have a few duds.

  8. I am a huge Chabrol fan and hardly know where to begin the recommendations, but the top tier for me is Les Bonnes Femmes, Le Boucher, La Rupture, and La Ceremonie. I”ve never seen Alice – I stupidly passed an opportunity to see it at Filmex 1977 in LA because I thought the ticket was too expensive, and it never came anywhere near me again.

  9. Might be worth getting the French disc — there’s really very little dialogue, and the film is just as puzzling whether you understand it or not. A fascinating departure for CC — it’s like his Black Moon.

  10. The first Chabrol film I saw was Dr M which, while fascinating and a film that I keep meaning to revisit now that I’ve seen some of his more representative works, was probably not the best place to start!

  11. It’s meant to be a failure, but I’d be keen to see it sometime. Alice is another Langian homage film.

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