Like Walerian Borowczyk, who specialized in surreal erotic horror, filmmaker Jean Rollin perfected a nearly baroque vision of crude romances, stories which were detailed with such precise and opulent beauty that the horror simply became an afterthought in his films. Not surprisingly, Rollin (once again, like Borowczyk) had been a painter before his career in cinema. Most of the French filmmaker’s work capitalized on the vampire-horror craze of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and his sexualized (and fetishized) view of blood and death presented a curiously gothic display of theatrics that was at once dated and promethean.
Rollin is probably best known for his films Fascination and Lips of Blood, vampire films heavy on the pulp and rather skimpy on logic. His preoccupations with nude woman, subservient male fantasies of lesbian relationships and eroticized deaths certainly didn’t win him much favour with the critics at the time; much of Rollin’s work was dismissed as softcore trash. A closer look at the late filmmaker’s work today reveals that much of his emotional contact with the viewer transpired in his uncanny and powerful visuals. Quite often, the visuals eclipsed the meagre storylines (usually for the better) and allowed the audience a portal into a world in which narrative coherence was nearly bereft.
The Escapees (1981), by Rollin’s admission, is one of his lesser efforts. It trawls the same roads of fetishized drama, but gone are the vampires and dark magic. Rather plaintive, the film is lacking in the haunting and beautiful surrealism of his works of supernatural horror. What we are presented with instead is an adolescent road film of slightly punkish temperament.
The film begins with two young girls, Michelle and Marie, who are committed to an asylum for the obvious reasons of past family abuses. Low-budget constraints of the film reveal that the “asylum”, suspiciously devoid of any institutional facilities, is most likely an unused apartment building. It’s a clear sign that Rollin, deprived of his usual ornaments of lavish settings, struggled to make do with the unintended minimalism. Michelle is a loud, abrasive and selfish young girl who wishes nothing more than to see the world before she dies. Marie is a catatonic recluse with a phobia of men. When the two conspire to escape from the institution, their journey down an adventurous road toward freedom introduces them to a succession of eccentrics who either help or hinder their efforts for a better life.
There are very strong echoes of Allan Moyle’s 1980 teen drama Times Square here, another film about two runaway girls who escape from a mental institution on the ill-conceived notion that what they find on the outside will surely be better than their current predicaments. Both of these films are troubled by a narrative that completely foregoes a sensible presentation of street life. In Rollin’s film, what vagrant life has in store for these two girls is a travelling strip-tease show (horribly staged), a pub maintained by a madam who allows underage drinking and swinging couples who bring these young girls back home for an evening of sex and deadly shoot-outs. It all seems utterly silly, and yet somehow Rollin manages a poetic reading of these preposterously grim sequences. There is, at times, a moving and elegiac undercurrent to the proceedings and even in the most implausible moments of adolescent fury, we are received with a poignancy typically missing in the flakiest of teen dramas.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray remaster of The Escapees shows the limitations of the low-budget print from time to time, especially in the opening sequence and the darker night time scenes. But the print appears healthy enough and, strangely, the grainy roughness actually services the film rather well; that is to say, the print for this film isn’t pretty, but neither is life for these two young girls. Sound comes through nicely and dialogue is clear. The only extra on the disc is a 2008 interview with Rollin who discusses his initial displeasure with the film, especially with his experiences working with the screenwriter whom he says offered him a muddled and boring script (Rollin himself wrote a script for the film and then fashioned the two respective screenplays together). The film is in French with English subtitles.
In his interview about the film, Rollin admits that the film has one especially powerful scene which elevates the drama above mere pap: its concluding scene. Sure enough, there’s a heartbreaking poeticism in the enigmatic close that nearly manages to negate much of the nonsense that came before it. If you can sit all the way through this uneven and compromised effort, you will be rewarded with a single moment of brilliance that Rollin executed many times over in his other superior films.