Alice Caroll (Sylvia Kristel) patiently listens to her husband (Bernard Rousselet) complaining about the rotten day he's had at work, lounging in front of a gameshow on television as he rants. She stands on the threshhold of the doorway until she finds a gap in his tirade to tell him she is leaving him, which shocks him. He tries to persuade her to change her mind, but she will not be swayed, and soon has taken her suitcase full of clothes and left in her car, so set on escaping that she is prepared to drive through the stormy night to get away - that is until suddenly her windscreen is broken and she is forced to stop.
Alice ou la dernière fugue, which translates as Alice or the Last Escapade, was not one of director Claude Chabrol's highest profile efforts, and the same went for its star Kristel, at the time best known for her exploits in the Emmanuelle series. This represented something different for her and indeed Chabrol, a surreal diversion into a dream that could have been a nightmare, the path that many a noted European director took during this decade, though often with results so difficult to appreciate other than on that dreamlike level that they rarely emerged as their most lauded works. In this case, as was so often the case, it was Alice in Wonderland which was the apparent inspiration.
Kristel's character was called Alice Caroll after all, and the bizarre adventures she is embroiled in bore comparison with many an exercise in strangeness, the Lewis Carroll literature being the jumping off point for, if we're being frank, probably far too many fantasies on both small and big screen, to the point that it would have been far more original to plump for a different source. And that was a problem here, as it was elsewhere, in that Chabrol, for all his expertise in his thrillers no matter their professed debts to Alfred Hitchcock, played out something far too overfamiliar in his endeavours to be off the wall. Actually, this film was dedicated to the memory of Fritz Lang, and some delight in noticing the references to his work contained within this one.
But there was a far greater influence which only really struck you once you reached the end, and that was a small independent horror movie of the sixties which many called back to possibly in the hope that it was so obscure itself that nobody would latch onto what they were doing with their story here. So it was with this Alice, as in what now looks dispiritingly lazy Chabrol was basically elaborating and riffing on Carnival of Souls, which was all very well but you kind of hoped he might have conjured up something fresher; obviously, when this was released the American horror was only fifteen years old and not as widely seen; now in the age of public domain DVDs and internet streaming it is far better known, and generally regarded as the cult classic it is.
As for this, the atmosphere of off kilter machinations was fairly pleasingly achieved as Alice winds up at a country house in the middle of the night and taken in by the elderly owner (Charles Vanel) and his butler (Jean Carmet), given an omelette and packed off to bed. She's sleeping away when awoken by a strange noise, but cannot see where it has come from: this signals the start of mindbending quirks of space and time as she tries to get away from the country house grounds only to keep ending up back where she started, which again was a hackneyed illustration of a nightmare scenario. Also, a handful of other characters showed up but she couldn't conduct a reasonable conversation with them in typical Wonderland fashion because they insisted they couldn't answer any of her questions. The cyclical plot draws on, leaving Alice in a possible vision of hell (though we're not sure what she's done to deserve that), until the letdown of a punchline. Interesting for a director operating outside of his comfort zone, but it could have been more inspired. Music by Pierre Jansen.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.