Monday, May 4, 2015

The Escapees (1981)

AKA Les paumées du petit matin, The Runaways, Fuges mineures, A couteaux tirés

While Jean Rollin was never shy about straying from the vampire subgenre in which he made a name for himself early in his career with non-vampire films like The Iron Rose (1973) and The Demoniacs (1974), as the 70’s turned into the 80’s Rollin began traveling down some interesting roads and distanced himself from vampires even further until he returned to the subgenre in 1997 with Two Orphan Vampires. The 80’s were a particularly interesting time for Rollin as he brought his signature style to a number of films in a variety of subgenres like the emotional zombie film The Living Dead Girl (1982), the Cronenbergian Night of the Hunted (1980), the atypical crime thriller The Sidewalks of Bangkok (1984) and the made for TV dream piece Lost In New York (1989). Of course there’s also the notorious Zombie Lake (1981) which Rollin finished after Jess Franco abandoned the project and several adult films Rollin signed with his “Robert Xavier” pseudonym. If there’s one film from Rollin’s 80’s output that sticks out but also has gotten lost in the shuffle a bit over the years it’s The Escapees. For the longest time The Escapees was one of Rollin’s most under the radar films and in some ways it still is to more casual fans, however its also an incredibly powerful film and an excellent example of the emotional impact Rollin’s films can have.

Immediately after arriving at a mental institution, Michelle (Laurence Dubas), a belligerent juvenile delinquent forms an escape plan with the aid of the extremely reserved Marie (Christiane Coppé), a fellow inmate who begs Michelle to let her go along. After some initial hesitation, Michelle agrees and with no particular destination in mind the two make a run for it in search for a better place, encountering an odd assortment of characters and dangerous situations along the way.

At first glance The Escapees (Les échappées) might seem like one of Rollin’s most atypical films and to a certain extent it is due to the lack of any supernatural elements yet Rollin’s fingerprints are all over the material. Instead of vampires, vengeful demons or zombies, the creatures of the night featured in The Escapees are the types found in the real world. Traveling gypsy circus troupes, thieves, tramps, shifty nightclub patrons, these are the inhabitants of Marie and Michelle’s new world. Despite the “realist” setting, the film is still quintessentially Rollin in that it retains a fairytale quality due to Rollin’s surrealist tendencies and the random nature of Marie and Michelle’s encounters, the highlight being an exotic dance show put on by the gypsies held in the middle of a junkyard. The film also features one of Rollin’s most poignant uses of his “two girls” as the main protagonists with the characters of the timid Marie and the outgoing and opinioned Michelle perfectly contrasting each other which also makes them the perfect match. The development of their relationship throughout the film, going from slightly contentious at first to sisterly and co-dependant by the end of the film comes across as genuine which makes the film pack an even bigger punch. Rollin fanatics will instantly recognize Louise Dhour as a nightclub owner and of course Brigitte Lahaie as a lesbian yuppie. Her role might not be the biggest but it is memorable and plays a major role in fate of Marie and Michelle.

There were two scripts written for the film, Rollin’s original script
which was then given to a screenwriter by the name of Jacques Ralf who then wrote another script which Rollin hated. According to Rollin, Ralf was more of a theatre writer and his script contained far too much dialogue and Rollin’s films were always sparse on dialogue. Rollin also claimed that Ralf’s script was full of clichés, so when the time came to actually make the film Rollin essentially combined the two scripts shooting the best scenes from his original screenplay and the re-write. Interestingly, Rollin initially hated what has essentially gone on to become the best remembered and most highly regarded scene in the film, the amazing scene of Marie ice skating as it contained the aforementioned extra dialogue that Rollin found melodramatic and unnecessary. By his own admission, Rollin basically lost interest in the film do to all the difficultly with the script and over time had sort of forgotten about the film until a French cable TV channel acquired the rights to it for broadcast and eventually the film made its DVD debut in 2009 so at least it won’t be completely forgotten about. While it isn’t likely to win over anyone not used to Rollin’s style, there’s no reason why fans of Rollin who for some reason haven’t gotten to The Escapees yet wont find plenty to love.

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