Reviews

'The Escapees' Is Equally Preposterous and Poetic

At turns poignant and silly, The Escapees is a lesser picture by Jean Rollin, one devoid of his fanciful surrealism.


The Escapees

Director: Jean Rollin
Cast: Laurence Dubas, Christiane Coppé
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Rated: Not Rated

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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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