The King Of Escape (Le roi de l’évasion)
France (2009) Dir. Alain Guiraudie
Openly gay writer-actor-director Alain Guiraudie made waves internationally with his 2013 Cannes Film Festival conquering Stranger By The Lake, but as this earlier effort shows, flying the flag for the LGBT community is not new territory for him.
The unlikely hero of this tale is chunky forty-three year-old farm machine salesman Armand Lacourtade (Ludovic Berthillot), a gay man with a taste for the mature men. However his love life is going nowhere and his rivalry with fellow employer Daniel (Luc Palun) is bringing him down. One night Armand spies four teenage boys hassling Daniel’s teenage daughter Curly (Hafsia Herzi) in the street and pays them to leave her alone.
Armand takes Curly home to little gratitude from Daniel, whom he learns subjects Curly to a very strict upbringing, while Curly develops a crush on Armand. Sympathetic to her plight Armand tries to rescue Curly but incurs the wrath of a psychotic Daniel, which makes Curly love Armand even more and Armand even more confused. They finally run away together with Daniel and the police hot on their trail.
Unlike the intense Stranger this film is in fact a comedy drama, something the central premise would make appear rather obvious. Surely, if a teenage girl were going to be safe with anyone it would be a forty-something gay man with a thing for older men, right? Actually, not in this case. Guiraudie flips the whole tale on its head, not just by reversing the solution of a midlife crisis while posing a number of questions about the caprice of sexual desires.
Everything about this film is the opposite from the usual clichés and conventions – Armand is not the young chiselled gay hero; he is not a married straight man seeking solace in the experimenting with a gay man; Curly falls for a guy who is atypical of what 16 year-olds usually dream about. Obviously any parent would be wary of their 16 year-old daughter seeing a 43 year-old man but a gay man?
The union between the two is deemed unnatural and abhorrent, especially to Daniel, but as Armand gets the town police chief (Francois Clavier) to admit, he’s done nothing wrong especially since he is gay. However as per the law, Armand is required to wear a sex offenders bracelet and suddenly his case becomes a minor Cause célèbre for some folk, leading to the odd couple hitting the road.
Why either party is besotted by the other is left as a mystery, although the audience will see the attraction in Curly while her designs on Armand will be less apparent due to the huge discrepancy in their aesthetic presence. This again is a deliberate ploy by Guiraudie in subverting the whole idea of love and lust, illustrated by the sex scenes between Armand and Curly which are akin to the bear attack scene in The Revenant – i.e.: a huge lumbering mass humping away on top of a much slighter figure.
By shining a light on the idea of expectations for both the viewer and the characters in terms of what floats out boat, the other side of the coin is getting what we want. When Armand and Curly finally sleep together Armand is in complete control and while Curly is his first female lover, he doesn’t approach the matter any differently, ruining the moment when he takes her for granted by trying a position Curly isn’t comfortable with.
Is he being too forward or thoughtless because of his experience or is the little girl not quite as ready as she thought she was? Much of the film’s attitude towards sex reflects the French’s legendary (infamous?) laissez faire inhibitions while reminding us that such liberation does come with a price, returning us to the point about expectations versus reality.
The story also needs a subplot and this is provided by the discovery by Armand of his boss Paul (Pascal Aubert), best friend Robert (Pierre Laur) and adventurous old man Jean (Jean Toscan) indulging in some interesting antics of their own, involving a Viagra like crop call Doo-root. I’ll leave you draw your own conclusions but it sheds a different light on the outrage shown against Armand’s actions as well as supplying some esoteric comedy moments.
As much as this is a morality tale it is also about self-discovery in Armand’s case. With nothing in his life except work and cruising at a nearby gay hotspot he feels unfulfilled and directionless. He isn’t wanting for money or necessarily companionship but he is missing something. With Curly as both the catalyst and instigator of Armand’s unexpected sexual reawakening, there is excitement in his life for the first time but has he really found the answer to his woes?
Having only seen the openly explicit Stranger I have no other only reference point in terms of how Guiraudie usually presents his sex scenes. In this case, there is nothing overtly graphic here at all, the closest being the action between Curly and Armand which are no more raunchy than any other mainstream film, while a couple of gay fellatio scenes are shot from behind.
Ludovic Berthillot is not the most conventional male lead with his chunky looks lending themselves to comedy more than romance, yet his laconic approach to everything makes Armand quite endearing. Aged 22 at the time of filming, the sultry Hafsia Herzi – she of the mesmerising belly dance from Cous Cous – provides the energy as Curly, superbly capturing the impetuousness of her youthful character.
Lovingly shot to reflect the rural splendour of Southern France The King Of Escape is a deliberately satirical take on the mid life crisis problem by way of desexualising the cinematic sexual fantasy. A sprightly paced film at 89 minutes I personally enjoyed this joyous romp more to the comparatively dour Stranger By The Lake.