By David Pountain
Dir: Alain Guiraudie
Alain Guiraudie has recently found his way onto international radars with the masterful drama Stranger by the Lake (also released by the now ubiquitous Peccadillo Pictures). One of last year’s best releases, the film tells its story of murder at a male cruising spot with quiet intensity and dark existential dread. If you reduce King of Escape, Guiraudie’s previous work, to its plot summary and technical attributes, it looks a lot like the film that followed it. Yet watching one is a vastly different experience to watching the other, with King of Escape suppressing the most potentially disturbing sides of its content through sheer absurdity. It’s not that the film doesn’t make perfect sense. It just moves by its own unique logic, creating a reality where societal values are very slightly removed from our own. Together, these two works form an exemplary demonstration of how a filmmaker can put their own personal stamp on their products while remaining creatively flexible (you hear that, Tim Burton?) but, taken on its own, King of Escape is a frequently hilarious, strangely affecting drama of aimless lust.
Ludovic Berthillot plays Armand, a chubby middle-aged man who lives in rural France. Armand finds himself as the object of the affections of a local 16-year-old girl named Curly (Hafsia Herzi) after he rescues her from gang rape. While his taste tends to be for mature men, Armand eventually engages in a sexual relationship with Curly, much to the upset of the girl’s father. Now he has the local sheriff on his case, keeping track of Armand’s whereabouts with an electronic sex-offender bracelet, but he decides to continue seeing her regardless.
The film makes no moral judgement of its central relationship. In fact, no one really does. Sex appears to be a subject mainly devoid of the social barriers we associate with it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this film features its own cruising spot but it also seems thoroughly normal for a man to offer to go down on his boss in the office or for three men making a business deal to have a quick circle jerk in the woods. Even Curly’s perpetually angry father appears more resentful of Armand’s history of being with men than of the age disparity, feeling that previous preferences suggest that Armand is unlikely to commit to a woman. This assessment even has some basis in reality – the biggest internal strain on Curly and Armand’s relationship seems to be that Curly’s feelings of romanticism are largely unreciprocated.
This informal attitude to sex is reflected in Guiraudie’s deadpan style, making the most outlandish things seem ordinary. Most of his scenes are accompanied only by background sounds of nature while the low-key editing delivers the film’s dry punchlines. The quirky humour may not be to everyone’s taste but the film’s deranged unpredictability and character-driven goofiness should put some pretty big grins on the faces of anyone caught up in the unusual rhythm of it all.
King of Escape is certainly a fairly odd film but that doesn’t mean that the viewer won’t feel a connection to it. The free-spirited Armand is a surprisingly warm and lovable old boob, despite some pretty dubious actions. In the real world, his short-sighted following of his sexual impulses would probably make him a social outcast and yet, in the context of Guiraudie’s film, he’s a magnetic figure to the people of his town. Whether that’s indicative of a flaw in our society or the film’s fictitious society is up to you but, for at least an hour and a half, we’re thrilled to pretend that Armand’s world is our own.