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.
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.”