ALICE, OR THE LAST ESCAPADE (Claude Chabrol, 1976)

“It’s useless to ask questions, for there are no answers.”

 “You cannot escape your fate.”

 

Dedicated to Fritz Lang, who had died earlier that year, writer-director Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue certainly expresses Lang’s fatalistic view of life. It is one of the most chilling and nightmarish films I have seen—and one as visually gorgeous and color cinematographer Jean Rabier could make it. It has been, I believe, widely misunderstood.

The plot is spare. Alice Carol (think Wonderland and Lewis) decides to leave her self-involved husband after an undisclosed medical report and five years of marriage. She packs a single suitcase and takes off in a rainstorm, despite her husband’s plea to wait for morning, until the rain has stopped, and even his offer to vacate the premises for the night and stay at a hotel. But Alice is determined to unload herself of him at once. In the storm the windshield of her car shatters in place; wrapping a cloth around her hand, she punches through it. A mansion now in her view, she drives through the open gate and finds herself hospitably welcomed in by both a servant and the apparent owner—the only two individuals present. She is given dinner and shown to her room. There is a clock in the room; its pendulum has stopped. At intervals, the pendulum again swings back and forth. The mansion, suddenly deserted, is dark and mysterious. In the morning, in the kitchen she finds provisions for making breakfast—but no one but herself. Somehow, the windshield of her car has been replaced and the sky is clear. Her drive away sets her in a wooded labyrinth from which there seems to be no exit. Instead, her driving inside it takes her back to the mansion, outside of which she meets a series of cryptic, anonymous people, and inside of which a ringing phone has her speaking, somehow, to herself. She leaves again, but even the open highway takes her back to the mansion. At the conclusion, time has turned back, and there she is again in the rain, but instead of being at the wheel, she is a corpse hanging out the flung-open door.

I am somewhat bothered by the fact that Chabrol’s film gives little sense of the loss of a human life; but if the film is inhuman (and it is), it is effectively grave and deeply mysterious. It is the superior precursor of such films as Jacob’s Ladder, The Sixth Sense and The Others.

However, Chabrol is aiming at something more than an elegant horror film. Keep in mind his own repudiation of his very beautiful Le beau serge (1958) on the basis of its Christian symbolism. Chabrol’s Alice is a calculated assault on Catholicism, the Church, and French adherence to the faith. Its view of the afterlife is, of course, absurd, a fantasy; but its hellishness and horror, tucked inside lush greenery and the intricately beauteous forest, is a mockery of Christianity’s idea of a serene place with angels flapping by. There is no such place as Christianity professes. The shocking view of Alice’s corpse hammers Chabrol’s final nail into the coffin of Christian optimism and hope. There is nothing real after death except a dead body. 

 

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