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Chabrol Dives into Time-Warping Fantasy with ‘Alice ou la dernière fugue’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the base to Claude Chabrol’s essay of a woman’s metaphysical journey into fear in fantasy-themed Alice ou la dernière fugue.

Alice ou la dernière fugue
Claude Chabrol

Well known for an oeuvre of work that explores the moral complications that lie between the social classes, filmmaker Claude Chabrol managed to corner the French film market that surged with the popularity of the murder mystery during the better part of the ’70s. His incisive observations on the hypocrisies that exist not only between the classes but within them allowed for a sort of inculcated form of Alfred Hitchcock’s whodunits that subtly reproached the more high-handed French films by Claude Sautet and Bertrand Tavernier. Waterlogged at times by the attitudes and persuasions of bourgeois mores, such filmmakers that followed the final waves of La Nouvelle Vague seemed to instate those very traditionalist values that other directors of that movement, like Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Chabrol himself, often condemned.

Chabrol would begin a career with a number of technically sound but middling films that only aspired for the thematic heights he would eventually achieve in his later films. Debuting with a quiet but probing film, Le Beau Serge (1958), Chabrol explored the class systems through the schema of typical Hollywood fare that proffered stars like James Dean a place at the top of the roster. Chabrol would continue with this interesting, though slight, structure of ethical examination in works like Les Cousins (1959) and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) before hitting cultural and commercial paydirt on what is now considered his most reputed work, the psychological thriller Le Boucher (1970). A film that blurred heavily the lines between human inequity and the indignities of the lower classes, Le Boucher (written by Chabrol himself) essayed the moral sublimations of provincial France – a demographic that would never truly be free from the filmmaker’s discriminating eye throughout the course of his career.

By now, Chabrol had entered the ’70s, considered the golden arch of his career, where he would continue to create films that further pushed the dialogues existing in either economic class. While raking up the critical accolades and a few notable honors along the way (including a Golden Bear award and a Palme D’Or nomination), Chabrol would soon find his work the subject of much assessment in the light of a venerated icon, Hitchcock. The Frenchman’s work, excavating perhaps only the unique, equivocal characterizations in the Englishman’s films, is distinguished from Hitchcock’s in that it follows the trajectories of open-ended entanglements, suitable for Chabrol’s mise-en-scènes but unbefitting of the larger-than-life fictions of Hollywood. Nevertheless, the comparisons only helped to augment his status among the contingents of European cinema, his influence expanding slowly but steadily beyond the borders of his native France.

Despite, however, a high-cresting wave upon which the French filmmaker rode during the ’70s (his successful murder-mysteries exemplars of the box office), Chabrol wasn’t exactly immune to the de rigueur of the day; the vogue of science fiction and fantasy had already reared its head upon the French film industry with proliferating force.

Spearheading a short-lived fantasy-themed film movement in France, Jacques Rivette‘s Celine and Julie Go Boating, in 1974, opened the gates to a narrative examination of the adult life in spiritual flux. His story of the lives of two separate women who are inextricably bound by magic won ardent favor among the French critics who used the film as a signpost of a new wave of filmmaking for the ’70s. Its appeal was not limited to the French; 11 years following its release, Susan Seidelman would use Rivette’s film as a template for her screwball mystery-comedy, Desperately Seeking Susan, citing the film’s story of two lives magically intertwined as the basis for her characters.

Indeed, Rivette’s film was the hot iron of which his contemporary filmmakers struck; in the years following the film, Louis Malle would release Black Moon (1975), Rivette, another fantasy-themed film, Duelle, in 1976, and Eduardo de Gregorio with Sérail that same year. These films, for the most part, eschewed the perennially earth-trodden desires of modern French life. Exploring a sort of metaphysical horror of the everyman/everywoman through the sequences of fantasy, these filmmakers attempted to build a new language in the paradigms of their cinema. Including Chabrol.

Released in 1977, Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue (its literal translation, “Alice or the Last Fugue”, sometimes translated through its implied meaning as either “Alice or the Final Fleeing”, or “Alice or the Last Escapade”) was his first and last foray into the then-vogueish fantasy genre. Based loosely on the Lewis Carroll books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, Chabrol presents a woman in danger navigating a no-man’s land peopled chiefly, though sparsely, with men. Written by Chabrol himself, Alice diverges from the heroines of his other films, in that, while the women of such films like Le Boucher and Les Bonnes Femmes negotiate assimilations into their male-dominated structures of community, the woman of Alice struggles for release from the horrors of suburban domesticity.

The film begins with Alice Carroll (played by Sylvia Kristel), who packs her bags upon her decision to leave her ignorant, exasperating husband. Driving off into the rainy night with no destination made known to the viewer, Alice happens upon a lonely countryside road where, seemingly without cause, her windshield shatters. Lost, alone, and without any hope of furthering her journey, the young woman takes refuge in a darkened chateau, waxing forebodingly in the distance ahead of her. Welcomed into the house by its occupants, an inquisitive and friendly octogenarian, Henri (Charles Vanel), and his humble though circumspect manservant, Colas (Jean Carmet), Alice reluctantly agrees to spend the night at the insistence of her hosts.

Shown to her room, Alice settles in for the night. But not before she spies the small pendulum clock resting on the night table. Discovering that the clock is damaged and no longer functioning, she is simply told “We don’t care too much about time here,” by the obliging servant. With this most ostensible clue, the narrative’s first trope of the fantasy genre has been signaled into play; we later learn of time’s significance in reference to both Chabrol’s own narrative and the parent material by Carroll upon which it is based. Startled from her sleep by a sonorous, inhuman groan, Alice rushes to the window to see the first signs of trouble that lie ahead for her; a dark, shifting mass of shadow stretches the grounds of the estate, brought upon by the sudden swinging of the damaged clock’s pendulum.

In the morning, Alice repairs to the kitchen where her breakfast is laid out for her, only to discover that her hosts have disappeared. When a fretful search of the house turns up no one, she departs in her car (her windshield now restored), once again heading off into destinations unknown.

A search for the gateway through which she entered the night before proves fruitless and Alice begins to circle the estate endlessly; every road she takes leads back to the house. Frustrated and panic-stricken, she decides to leave on foot. Encountering a large wall with no opening or ending in sight, Alice soon realizes her predicament: she is a prisoner on the grounds with no discernable means of escape.

Throughout the film, Alice meets a number of characters who tell her that all attempts to leave the estate are in vain. Struggling to adjust to her less-than-usual circumstances, she meets her hosts Henri and Colas for the last time, where a distressing truth is revealed. The film’s title, a pertinent clue to the plotline, refers to the story’s elliptical and circular narrative (denoting a compositional technique in music), as well as a “fugue state” – the dreamlike interstice that the heroine finds herself trapped in.

Articulated through the mechanisms of a metaphoric trap, Alice ou la dernière fugues‘ narrative is expressed in allegory; certain cues and figures that feature in the Carroll books are laid out here only in symbol, the bare essence of those references ensuring Chabrol’s narrative is no mere pastiche but an ambiguous study. Being that this is an adult meditation on the Alice in Wonderland stories from the two Carroll books, Alice’s human struggles are essayed within the axioms of fantasy; a series of untested philosophies are now employed to challenge an unwitting captive beyond the very survivalist instincts that have entrapped her. Alice has left the prison of her marriage, only to enter another one of solitude and seclusion. Whether this particular design is Chabrol’s comment on his views of the second wave of feminism that swept the ’70s is unclear. But in no uncertain fashion does it refer to the comments made on self-exploration in the Alice in Wonderland books, as Chabrol’s narrative would certainly suggest.

Many stand-ins from the Carroll books are evident throughout, some more obvious than others. Alice’s entrance into a strange world is precipitated by the shattering of her windshield (clearly a reference to the world beyond the mirror of which Carroll’s heroine enters in Through the Looking Glass). Beyond the shattered screen, the chateau appears like an illusory beacon and the beginnings of Alice’s escapades, as one English translation of the film’s French title suggests, are set in motion. Carroll’s frenetic Mad Hatter is achieved here with considerable restraint in Henri, the man of the house; his servant Colas a far more subdued attendant of the Hatter’s, as related here by Chabrol.

The filmmaker touches on yet another Carroll reference in the damaged pendulum clock that furnishes Alice’s bedroom; here it is a stand-in for the pocket watch carried by the white rabbit. In Chabrol’s treatment, the pendulum starts and stops at random, seemingly causing havoc on the estate grounds. Later, it will provide an important clue to Alice’s quandary of imprisonment.

References to Carroll’s Wonderland are further delineated in Chabrol’s conception of the house. Upon waking, Alice explores the house in search of her missing hosts. A closer examination reveals the filmmaker’s subtle allusions to the adapted texts. Alice tries a small door that appears to be locked, echoing a similar act by the Alice in Carroll’s books, in which she wanders a metamorphosizing house that grows larger and smaller with every room she explores. Chabrol’s Alice, soon after, discovers a spread of food mysteriously laid out for her in the kitchen (an occurrence that will take place every day Alice spends in the house), as does the Alice in Carroll’s novels. If these allusive details are somehow lost on the viewer, Chabrol takes no pains in pushing the references by naming his heroine after the author’s titular character and his surname: Alice Carroll.

Alice’s unsuccessful trek through the estate, both by vehicle and on foot, reaffirms the source material Chabrol has pulled from; Carroll’s Alice finds herself within a transmutable garden, in which, to save her own life, she is forced to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts. Alice’s many missteps in her escape from Carroll’s garden are similarly occasioned in Chabrol’s revision of the story, where preternatural forces seemingly conspire to keep his Alice trapped on the chateau grounds.

Later, the filmmaker pulls yet another reference, this time from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In another bid to escape from the estate, Alice hurries to exit the property once she is waylaid by a ghostly shroud that engulfs the entire space within the house. Thrown back and pinned against the wall by an unseen force, she struggles to crawl along the floor toward the front doors of the chateau. The tiles upon which she edges across are checkered like that of a chessboard, a narrative extraction from Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice is poised upon a life-sized chessboard and immersed in a surreal game of chess with the Red Queen.

Chabrol’s Alice is equally inundated with the supernatural, as she wrestles to free herself from the invisible entities that hold her to the floor. It is made certain here that Alice’s life is in the throes of Death, of whom she unwittingly makes her chess moves against, sidling across the checkered tiles. In a rather sly and clever device of framing, Chabrol strategically captures a table leg in the foreground of the shot, so that it appears as a chess piece upon the checkered floor. This particular allusion extends beyond the materials by Carroll; the filmmaker deftly invokes Ingmar Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal, as well, in which a knight is forced to play chess against Death on a similarly-conceived chessboard. Shortly after, once Alice does manage an escape from her invisible captors and the house, she breaks into a run for her car, whereby the ground is littered with dead birds, echoing yet another scene in Carroll’s novel, in which a courtyard is scattered with flamingos (who are used as mallets in a game of croquet).

Further citations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland round out the film, including a scene of a stopover at a restaurant, clearly a stand-in for Carroll’s boisterous tea party. Alice, having found herself temporarily free from the estate grounds, stops at a restaurant for a cup of coffee (learning that they only serve tea). In progress is an orgy, which begins as mutual foreplay and ends in death. The erotic presentiment here seems to denote the feminist sublimations outlined earlier in the film, following Alice’s leave of her husband. Frightened, Alice flees the restaurant, only to end up back at the house, whereupon her windshield shatters again – a circumscribing of the, thus far, linear narrative that ultimately hems either ends of the film together.

Chabrol, often noted for his propensity for the subtly embedded reference, scatters many evocations throughout that source from material outside the Carroll books, as well. A nod to Belgian painter René Magritte is made in the second act, whereupon Alice meets a secretive young boy on the estate grounds one morning. A tactically arranged shot has the boy (played by Chabrol’s own son, Thomas) positioned behind a birdcage, upon which is perched a brimmed hat and a tartan shawl, to resemble Magritte’s painting, The Therapist.

Yielding, still, to a wealth of other influences, Chabrol instates the works from the Pre-Raphaelites. Alice, here, stalks the grounds in elegant slips of dress like an Edward Burne-Jones angel and descends stairways that are arched and vined like the masterful gardens to be found in the Eden of Arthur Hughes‘ paintings. Later, the heavenly and biblical allusions are achieved in curious dialogue; encountering Alice in the house during the last act of the film, Colas, the servant, bids her goodnight: “Goodnight, Aliccccce,” he hisses, a serpent in the enclosed paradise in which Alice has been ensnared. As if to concede to the deception, she hisses back, “Goodnight, Colassss…” Yet another biblical reference appears earlier in the film: invited to sit down to dinner during the evening, Alice takes a bite from an apple; a biblical allusion to Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, intended here to establish a transitioning of worlds, as Alice has now seemingly entered another realm.

During the film’s second act, a narrative ascription to the texts of Jorge Luis Borges is tucked away in a domestic activity as a knowing aside. Alice selects Borges’ Ficciones to read in the chateau’s lounge, once she discovers the futility of dialing out on a phone for help. A collection of short fiction best known for its story “Labyrinths” (the story Chabrol is most likely referring to here), Ficciones‘ appearance provides yet another meta-filmic touch to summarize the heroine’s struggle from her byzantine, maze-like nightmare.

Other symbolic touches that force the narrative to its meaningful conclusion are primarily orchestrated through Alice ou la dernière fugue‘s philosophy of time. As mentioned earlier, the pendulum clock that rests in Alice’s room, supposedly damaged and no longer functioning, comes to life in stops and starts. As the narrative progresses, we learn Alice is, in fact, trapped in a peculiar limbo for as long as it takes her to perish in a car accident. Time is presented here in existing dualities: Alice’s existence in limbo, and her other existence in the real world – the car crash where she lies dying in. The pendulum clock on the night table starts up periodically, signaling the amount of time that Alice, oblivious to the impending danger, has left in the real world.

Alice appears to be trapped on the estate for weeks but is later revealed to have only been inside the car for the course of a night. Chabrol’s insinuation of time-space continuums, therefore, suggest that time operates differently in the afterlife than it does on Earth. An aural-visual overlap in the film is employed every so often to further expound this philosophy of time. Alice, upon waking after her first night in the house, discovers a snail slowly creeping along the windshield of her car. At that very moment, the sound of a speeding jet going by can be heard (possibly a noise resounding from the crashed car in the real world). This aural-visual overlap continues to inform the narrative, as Alice’s journey comes to its inevitable end.

Extradiegetic information in Alice ou la dernière fugue further assists in expanding upon the meta-filmic data. Featured prominently in the film is an unnervingly repetitious score by Pierre Jansen, a frequent collaborator of Chabrol’s. Its near-circuitous composition is delivered in Chabrol’s aural-visual device of overlapping information, applied whenever Alice circles the estate in her attempts to escape. Later, Jansen’s composition and Alice’s predicament are re-referenced in Alice’s playing of Mozart’s piano concerto, no. 24 in the chateau’s lounge. Here, a morbid touch of humor has the record skipping, repeating the ominous notes just as she sits down to read Borges’ Ficciones. The oddly fugue-like structure of Jansen’s score, thereby, gives the film’s title an added layer of interpretation.

The interesting casting choice of Sylvia Kristel here can be subjected to a debate of whether her then-popularity (and therefore, her marketability) or her particular suitability for the role were deciding factors. Best known, and sometimes belittled, for her starring role as the eponymous character in Just Jaeckin’s 1974 Emmanuelle (and later, four of its sequels), Kristel had suddenly found herself aflush in celebrity once Emmanuelle became a bona fide hit with moviegoers. Regarded back in the day as an “erotic film”, though simply termed “softcore” in today’s markets, Emmanuelle managed to traverse its pornographic boundaries with its arthouse pretensions.

Debuting to much fanfare upon its release – and derided by many a critic as Vaseline-glossed, high-end soft-porn – Emmanuelle became the cross that Kristel was forced to bear for the rest of her career. Kristel who, in her lifetime, was often the target of industry ridicule and media contempt, was never free of a tasteless, running joke that reportedly went around about her, stating that the only true way to recognize her in a film was with her clothes off; a stone-etched indictment of her talents, which were deemed by many as suspect, if not entirely bereft of skill. Despite the condemning assessment of her thespian abilities, many notable filmmakers, including Roger Vadim, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Francis Girod, clambered to work with her.

In her 2006 memoir, Undressing Emmanuelle, Kristel makes mention of her participation in Alice ou la dernière fugue, expressing that her interest in the role was such because she had likened her fame to the surreal travails of Alice in Wonderland. If Chabrol had discerned a similar estimation in light of the actress’ success, it may establish yet another layer in the film, suggestive of its heroine’s ordeals. Kristel’s well-documented experiences of her difficult fame seem to suggest a subtext lying subtly beneath the one Chabrol has laid out in his re-contextualizing of the Alice in Wonderland stories.

Taken from the perspective of a narrative about the male gaze, Alice ou la dernière fugue becomes the meta-story of an actress ensnared in a voyeuristic prison, made to run circles around the cage of her celebrity and success. Chabrol’s, and therefore Kristel’s, fourth-wall moment is brazenly designed as a scene in which Alice is sat nude before a mirror. Here, an irreverent touch of humor has Chabrol placing Kristel naked in a wicker chair – a shrewd reference to the now emblematic promotional shot of the actress in character as Emmanuelle, seated upon a wicker chair, nude but for a string of pearls and knee-high fetish boots.

The broken pendulum clock comes to life again and a sudden noise has Alice running from the mirror and into the bedroom, where she is engulfed in the tremors of uncanny sound. Standing stark naked, she hears the laughter of a male voice, telling her, “You are very beautiful.” Not able to discern from where or whom the voice is coming, Alice, perhaps Kristel as herself now – the actress before a dismantled fourth wall – stares ahead into the void that is the lens through which Chabrol frames her; the very one through which she has been inculpated by critics and audiences alike. “Where are you?” she asks, and not “who?”, as if the “who” here is of inconsequence. It is a scene to designate the paths of resistance Alice will eventually embark upon; forced to acclimate to her surroundings, she is but little more than a pawn that Chabrol navigates around the impedimenta of her strange new world.

Later, when Alice is finally made aware of her circumstances, she is told by Henri, the master of the house: “I hope you’re not mad about the little jokes we played on you – it’s the only fun we ever have!” Such words, as they are, encapsulate a lingering sentiment in the film that follows the tribulations of a woman being pulled by the strings of allied men.

The tacit comment made here is on a life in the grips of a kind of celebrity, in which a woman is given over to the control and command of her nebulous (and nefarious) handlers. Eerily, the scene foreshadows some of the more tragic moments that were to follow in Kristel’s own life at the hands of an industry she worked in, including several unscrupulous deals that would leave the actress in financial ruin for years. Kristel has been particularly forthcoming about the subjugation in the transactions of her body on film; her memoir outlines the hardships of trying to validate and defend not only her choices but her body that was ultimately brokered in contracts and film deals – and, later, the patriarchal distrust that would ensue.

Chabrol’s film offers, through a sub rosa of dissembled allusion, a revealing angle on the struggles for masculinist emancipation. Kristel, who embodies Alice not only as an actress playing her but entirely as herself, works to wrestle the power of her character from the contraptions of the male gaze – belonging to those within the narrative, the filmmaker who frames that narrative and, finally, the audience who watches the narrative as it is being framed.

Two years prior to the release of Alice ou la dernière fugue, Malle’s Black Moon also employed the narrative of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a surreal odyssey that mapped the terrifying truths of a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality. Like Chabrol’s film, Black Moon addresses the oft-used theme of the Woman-in-Jeopardy, in which a young woman’s physical survival is achieved only in accordance with her erotic fulfillment.

In Black Moon, the female protagonist, Lily, is on the run from strange, gender-divided militias that have taken over the nameless country (possibly the entire world). Taking refuge in a large countryside manor, Lily encounters a set of mute telepathic twins, talking animals, and an old, invalid woman who keeps vigil over the rest of the perishing world through a transistor radio. Malle’s construal of the Alice in Wonderland narratives has his version of Alice embroiled in a gender war that becomes increasingly apocalyptic. Lily’s role in the frightening melee is seemingly passive. Unlike the character of Alice in Chabrol’s film, Lily doesn’t strive to free herself from the encompassing nightmare; her primary objective is to assimilate – a desire that struggles to be realized, as she is not welcomed into the homestead by her fellow lodgers. Alice, despite the maternal provisions afforded her (food, shelter, a beautified space of respite), struggles to unfetter herself from the forces that conspire to fence her in.

In either case, both heroines have been subsumed into a strange womb of consequence, where their environments become increasingly resistant to their panics and aggressions. Alice ou la dernière fugue can be viewed as an inversion of Black Moon‘s fairy-tale of feminine subjugation, one in which any movement made in the name of female assertion is met with the quietly hostile forces that govern the women’s newfound systems of patriarchy.

Entirely idiomatic of the cinematic language found in French film, Alice ou la dernière fugue remains purely of an extraction that exists outside the narratives explored in American film, its allegorical constructs presenting an ending that Chabrol once deemed “Cartesian”. Lying in a car wreck after having left her husband during the night, Alice’s death is finally realized the very moment she descends into the cellar of the house; a house, we later learn, that exists within the limbo she has long been subsisting in.

The final scene of the car wreck, which Chabrol reportedly nearly left out, provides an obvious clarification to bring the narrative to its symmetrical close – if we refer to the intended Cartesian logic of the mind and body as mutually exclusive realities. But it also endcaps the film with Chabrol’s finest touch of surrealism and metaphor – Alice’s successful capture of the elusive white rabbit. Last seen being chased by Carroll’s own Alice down a rabbit hole into a strange Wonderland, the white rabbit here, in Chabrol’s parable of the world beyond corporeal reality, is personified as Death; the unfortunate instrument of temporal release that Alice unwittingly chases after.

And, with that, comes a final comment on actress Kristel who, after years of much-celebrated success, critical mockery and, in the end, near-insolvency and obscurity would, at last, have the white rabbit in her grips, dying at the age of 60 from a stroke after her second bout with cancer. In this particular light, the film carries a telesthetic power that projects beyond its final frames. It makes the mysterious world of the film, of which Chabrol has drawn with much impressionistic intent, far more real than the celluloid of its fantasy could ever allow.