One of my absolute favorite spots on the net is the incredible Breakfast in the Ruins, a film blog run by a really terrific writer named Ben Haggar. I was really excited recently to hear that Ben was going to contribute a guest-post for Fascination and today I am thrilled to present it! So here is Ben's excellent new look at one of Rollin's less-discussed films, the very intriguing Les Paumees Du Petit Matin (The Escapees). Thanks so much to Ben for contributing this very fine piece and I hope everyone will head over to Breakfast in the Ruins after reading!
With the renewed interest in Jean Rollin’s work that has followed in the wake of Kino/Redemption’s reissue campaign and FindersKeepers soundtrack releases, now seems as good a time as any to lavish some attention on what I’d consider to be perhaps the most overlooked item in his catalogue, 1981’s Les Eschappees, aka The Runaways, aka The Escapees.
Long written off as a minor film, ‘The Escapees’ remained largely unseen for many years, only seeing release on Region 2 DVD from Redemption in 2008, seemingly after they’d long cleared their vault of everything else Rollin-related. Even Tohill &Tombs, in their landmark study of Rollin’s work in ‘Immoral Tales’, seem lukewarm on the film, praising the opening and closing scenes and the way the relationship between the central characters is developed, but largely writing it off as a ‘failed thriller’, concentrating on the problems Rollin encountered with proposed co-writer Jacque Ralf, and noting that the film ‘drags woefully’ (Immoral Tales, p.160).
Perhaps this general lack of availability and critical enthusiasm – together with the lack of fantastical or exploitation elements – has tended to make the film a bit of a hard sell for casual fans. Despite all this, I would still consider ‘The Escapees’ to be an essential Rollin film. Though as flawed and idiosyncratic as anything else he lent his name to during the ‘80s, it is still a singularly personal piece of work, invoking all of his key concerns as both a director and a human being, and gaining a particular poignancy through its investigation of what happens when the fantastical world he created in his ‘70s horror films makes the painful transition to the drab and impoverished reality of marginal French life in which those films were actually produced.
It’s certainly hard to imagine a more quintessentially ‘Rollin-esque’ opening to a story than the one found here, as two troubled girls (Laurence Dubas and Christiane Coppé) make their escape from the stifling confines of a particularly oppressive psychiatric institution, united in their search for … who knows what? Adventure, beauty, companionship? Above all, the mysteries of ‘the real world’, of which they know little, despite extrovert Michelle’s claims to the contrary. With a little tweaking, we could almost be watching an unfilmed prequel to ‘Requiem for a Vampire’, but rather than entering a fairytale world of chateaus and vampires, Michelle and Marie now find themselves lost in altogether more mundane circumstances.
Recalling the bleak visual sensibility of the previous year’s ‘Night of the Hunted’, Rollin’s camera captures suburban France at its most dismal and overcast, as the girls undertake their journey through freezing dockyards, rainsodden woods and motorway scrubland. Colour only enters proceedings when they stumble upon Maurice’s travelling show - a threadbare troupe consisting of a couple of exotic dancers and a faded fairground stage-set, who set up for business in a car graveyard near an unnamed port town, performing to a weather-beaten audience of workers, sailors and transients.
The poverty-stricken sadness of Maurice’s show and its patrons is beautifully evoked (presumably because the production itself was pretty poverty-stricken), with the dancers performing to tacky canned music, just in front of the train tracks, where anonymous carriages roll on into the night. Conjuring the most forlorn kind of faded funfair seediness, the scene puts me in mind of the Graham Greene quote immortalised by the Mounds & Circles weblog: “Seediness has a very deep appeal; it seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost”.
Although functioning as a simple and affecting tale in its own right, ‘The Escapees’ can on another level be read partly as a extended metaphor for its director’s struggle to realise his more outré visions amid the crushing banality of the world outside his head – an interpretation that the film at times seems to explicitly acknowledge. Certainly, the monologue Maurice delivers to the two girls in defence of his show could scarcely be any more on the nose when it comes to drawing a self-reflexive parallel between the plight of the film’s characters and the way that Rollin viewed himself and his collaborators in the ghetto of porno/horror filmmaking;
“Everyone here is an artiste. A true artiste. And what you see here is theatre. The theatre of the street. The original, the most beautiful. […] Look at my fairground stall, the sailors arguing… it is the great mystery of the fairground show.”
Although impossibly hackneyed by conventional standards (despite the increased realism, Rollin’s gift for naively stilted, unnatural dialogue scenes has not deserted him), the wider resonance of Maurice’s monologue, his exultation of a grand mystery within what any ‘respectable’ citizen would deem a squalid, tacky and dangerous situation, is moving indeed.
There is a certain warmth and romanticism to the way in which Rollin presents Maurice’s show that echoes through the whole film. The drunken crowd remains polite and respectful (for the most part), and a jovial, inclusive atmosphere reigns, even as sexual favours are bought and sold, and as the men invade the stage and lift the dancers above their heads in celebration. The party atmosphere only dissipates when the police arrive, and the crowd abruptly vanishes into the night.
Throughout its run-time, ‘The Escapees’ seems to evoke nostalgia for a kind of human warmth that has been lost from the modern world of wealth and respectability; a warmth that can now be found only amongst misfits and petty criminals, in places where progress fears to tread. Thinking back, this is a theme that can perhaps be traced throughout Rollin’s work, in the comfort his characters seem to find in the old, the derelict, the abandoned – only now the chateaus and cemeteries have been replaced by the community spirit found at Maurice’s show and, later, in Louise Dhour’s docklands bar.
The scenes in Louise’s bar struggle with that particular brand of awkwardness that often afflicts inter-character scenes in Rollin movies, but here too, it’s a convincing sense of warmth and belonging that shines through, anchored by a superb performance from Dhour herself as the matriarchal proprietor, drawing her small ‘family’ of damaged runaways around her as she reads the tarot and imparts advice, sharing an implicit understanding that they all basically share the same history, the same dreams. (A formidable vocalist, her rousing performance of the nautical ballad ‘La Mauvaise Priere’ is a real highlight too.)
It’s perhaps not the most original scenario ever conceived, but again, the simple empathy of Rollin’s approach to his characters gives it a comforting power that’s hard to deny. Until the quartet of decadent rich folk enter proceedings at the film’s conclusion in fact, it’s notable that ‘The Escapees’ is a drama in which the on screen action consists almost entirely of people being kind to each other, as the girls receive unquestioned courtesy and generosity from almost everyone they encounter. The film’s only real antagonists are poverty, social inequality, the law, and the unfortunate constraints of reality itself.
Like all of Rollin’s films, ‘The Escapees’ is an unapologetically sentimental work, thrown together in what can often seem an inexcusably slapdash and fragmentary manner. The earthbound setting perhaps draws undue attention to these perceived imperfections, and the film’s drifting pace, unconcerned with narrative urgency, may prove a bit of a stumbling block for some viewers, just as newcomers to the director’s work might find it hard to deal with the way the characters suddenly lapse into poetic reverie at every opportunity, giving voice to their dreams and fears into stilted, quasi-symbolist fashion.
That the film never even secured a release when it was initially completed is hardly surprising in the face of such wilful eccentricity, but now that we have the privilege of viewing Rollin’s films at our leisure, it would take a hard heart indeed to sneer as Michelle flicks through a picture book, telling Marie of shells shining on the ocean floor and pirates with their cutlasses, or as their friend Sophie announces that her forthcoming journey will take her far away, to unknown adventures. Like the ‘outsider’ and neo-primitive artists Rollin admired so much, his blunt manner of communicating his characters’ inner feelings bypasses the cynicism of any receptive viewer. As fans, we allow him to get away with bungling and pretension that would have us guffawing at the work of any other filmmaker – we can implicitly understand the honesty and depth of feeling he has invested in his characters, and the wider meaning of their plight, and we have no choice but to drop our critical guard accordingly.
Whilst Rollin is often written off as a ‘naive’ filmmaker though (even using the word in a positive context himself in describing films like ‘Requiem..’), his perceived amateurism shouldn’t obscure the fact that much of his technique is still extremely effective. In particular, the experience gained through nearly fifteen years worth of zero budget, shot-on-location filmmaking (has ANY Jean Rollin film ever boasted enough money for a purpose-built set?) had by this stage given him an incredible gift for capturing the emotional resonance of his locations – a skill which is utilised more clearly than ever on ‘The Escapees’.
Seemingly shot over a series of bleak and freezing dawns, the early morning scenes set in and around the docks have an incredibly evocative, sleepless feel to them - a girl slipping out of nightclub door hugging a leather jacket around her, rusty machinery, broken milk bottles and sailors lounging on the wharf watching cargo containers being lifted aboard ship. Whilst the film strives to keep the location fairly anonymous, these images effortlessly capture the transient world of every industrialised port city, from Hamburg to Yokohama, and the way Rollin is able to pull such deep associations from pretty much nothing at all helps highlight his strange, instinctive genius as a director, the surroundings in his films speaking to us as eloquently as his characters’ more direct flights of fancy.
As in ‘Night of the Hunted’, the sudden lurch into sex/violence footage that takes place in the final ten minutes of ‘The Escapees’ is strange and deeply uncomfortable, and, as is often the case in Rollin’s films, the motivation behind its inclusion is uncertain. Was he obliged to insert some salacious material into what would otherwise be a terminally un-commercial film, or was he just including it out of habit by this stage in his career? Or, more interestingly, was he shifting the tone for deliberate effect, to shock and repulse us just when we’d settled into the groove of a modest, heart-warming little film? Despite their tawdry explicitness (instantly upsetting the balance of what would otherwise be the one Rollin film you’d perhaps be able to sell your uptight world cinema fan friends on), the scenes featuring Brigitte Lahaie and Jean Philippe Delamarre as one half of a pair of duplicitous bourgeois couples who trick the girls into accompanying them home are still horribly effective in their own way. By this stage, our identification with Michelle and Marie is so strong that the very thought that they might not make it to the ship that awaits them at the harbour at 4am is unthinkable… and the fact that their fantastical voyage is halted by an invasion of sleaze and gore of course adds a further tragic resonance to the self-reflexive message Rollin seems to be trying to convey in this film.
The struggle between romanticism and realism in Rollin’s later films is nowhere more apparent than in the desperate need we feel for these girls to embark on their journey. Of course stowing away on a naval vessel bound for parts unknown is by any yardstick a pretty bad idea for a pair of young women, but from their own naïve point of view, it is the only possible course of action: to keep moving, to always be ‘elsewhere’, to try anything to escape their dismal surroundings. As Michelle says at the start of the film, “It doesn’t matter where. Elsewhere. There are always elsewheres everywhere.”
At first I thought ‘The Escapees’ and ‘The Runaways’ were pretty bland, utilitarian titles for this movie, but the more I think about them, the more perfect they seem. Michelle and Marie aren’t simply ‘escapees’ from the institution at the outset - their entire lives are focused on escape – from loneliness, from social norms, and from the confines of reality itself.
In one sense, their escape attempt proves futile, as venality and lust leave them more trapped than ever. On the other hand though, isn’t it a *direct* way out of the cold world around them that they’ve been seeking all along? By rolling out the ol’ ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ ending, isn’t Rollin essentially echoing the unsettling final message of many of his best films (Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, to name but a few), encouraging his characters to welcome death with open arms, as an opportunity to step beyond earthly banalities and embrace a kind of eternal mystery..? What are his films after all, if not a celebration of mystery, and what greater mystery can there be than that which lies beyond the veil?