Few contemporary filmmakers make movies as defiantly uncategorizable as French director Alain Guiraudie’s. Last year’s Staying Vertical, his first film to compete in the Cannes competition slate, was a kind of surreal pastoral, a freewheeling yet keenly structured rumination on writer's block, provincialism and familial responsibility. Stranger by the Lake, the film that first garnered Guiraudie some (semi-)mainstream success in 2013, is a Hitchcockian thriller of sorts, an intoxicating eros-thanatos dance set in its eponymous, sun-dappled locale. If those descriptions are rather non-committal, that's because pinning down Guiraudie’s films to specifics—of genre, story, or otherwise—is a tricky affair; the only constant is his idiosyncratic, iconoclastic sensibility.
Case in point: The King of Escape (2009)—about a middle-aged gay man, Armand (Ludovic Berthillot), who runs off with a sixteen year-old girl named Curly (Hafsia Herzi). It’s a film one could loosely outline using the template of a romantic comedy. There's a “meet-cute” (of sorts), various obstacles that keep the pair apart, friends that give well-meaning advice, escalating action culminating in a romantic climax, and then a turning point. And yet, one would be hard-pressed to describe the film as even remotely conventional. With Guiraudie, nothing is quite so simple.
Chiefly, the romantic pairing is rather atypical. Armand’s portly, somewhat lumbering figure makes an odd match for Curly’s youthful vivacity. He has a steady job selling farm machinery and is rather settled in his sex life; she hasn’t even finished high school and is (presumably) still in the first blush of her sexual experience. And their first meeting—during which he rescues her from being gang-raped by four teenage boys by paying them off—is hardly a romantic ideal. But in the film’s universe, sexual fluidity and the vagaries of human desire are, although not unquestioned, accepted without moral judgement. Early conversations, such as when Armand makes up his mind on the color of a farm tractor, often taken on multivalent meanings. (“You don’t have to choose now, no hurry,” a colleague tells him.) But Armand is in his forties, and time is running out, so to speak. The men that he sleeps with (“not old, mature,” he clarifies) are typically married, with lives of their own; women his age that he might settle down with, were he so inclined, aren’t exactly numerous, either; even the gay cruising spot he frequents, is, by the end of the film, zoned off. So where does he fit in? The freedom of sexual orientation may be taken for granted, but subdivisions and hierarchies of preference remain; the heteronormative is simply subsumed by a shifting normative “other.” After all, inertia knows no preference. (“Face it. We make do with what we have.”) Does he continue on, cruising for sex and working at his job? Does he settle down and start a family? All Armand knows is that at this moment, he desires Curly, and that she desires him.
In a canny inversion of expectation, it's not the fact of their love that impedes consummation, but the practicalities of the ‘real world’: age, disapproving parents, the “Family Protection Act.” The King of Escape creates a world that’s simultaneously open to an idealized sexual freedom, but also governed by a harsh (but comic) suppression that keeps the romance at bay. (It's this tension—a kind of paranoiac resistance—that drives the film, manifesting in a startlingly violent nightmare, a precisely calibrated escalation of horrors.) In a variation on what one would expect from a romantic comedy, Guiraudie skillfully sets up various obstacles to keep the pair apart for as long as possible—mainly in the form of a balding, perpetually bemused-looking detective (François Clavier)—while still providing various opportunities for the narrative tension to defuse, and allowing Armand various opportunities to “escape” (although he never does). Sexual interruptions and delayed climaxes recur throughout, as does a popular stimulant-cum-aphrodisiac known as “Doo-root,” which acts as a kind of agent of chaos, infusing the story (and its characters) with literal bursts of manic energy and libido. After all, this is a supremely energetic film, with sprightly rhythms (a lover’s chase caught in widescreen), sharp gags (Armand’s realization that pregnancy is a possibility) and a beautiful sense of comic timing (a door opening on a, let's say, "professional" exchange), all effortlessly integrated into its overall thematic tapestry.
As evinced by both Stranger by the Lake
and Staying Vertical
, Guiraudie has a knack for casually infusing physical objects and locales with a symbolic (in some ways, dialectical) dimension, a talent on full display here. As Armand and Curly make their escape, with various parties giving chase, the strict geometries of the film's urban locations give way to the wild brush of the countryside; cramped interiors open up into expansive vistas; a sun-dappled glade provides a moment’s repose. (A key image: Curly sawing off Armand’s tracking bracelet with a hacksaw—liberation tinged with blood.) But once the romantic thread is consummated, bliss gives way to restlessness, contentment to frustration. The wild abandon of nature becomes its own kind of prison. Inertia sets in once more.
Guiraudie is far too accomplished a director (and far too attuned to the nuances of queer narratives) to simply set up a story where a gay man stumbles into a relationship with a young woman, tries it out for a while, and decides to return to his former life. For one thing, the endpoint of the pair’s relationship—an ugly fulfillment of their first meeting—negates any possibility of that. For another, after Armand literally leaves Curly by the wayside, his future course of action is steeped in uncertainty. It's clear what Armand is escaping from. But where is he escaping to?
The film's brilliant final shift into abstract, low-light images—the physicality of the naked body in stark repose—gestures towards a possible answer; and as in Guiraudie’s later films, it’s not a comforting one. As the closing frame fades to black, romance gives way to the greater Romance of the world, a pure, sublimated desire; but it’s telling that this fullness of expression only happens under the cover of darkness. The King of Escape
is the stuff of dreams.