Film Review: The King of Escape

Alain Guiraudie, whose <a href=""><i>Stranger by the Lake</i></a> made such a splash, has always been a sexual provocateur, as is demonstrated by this earl

Although made before his attention-grabbing Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie's The King of Escape trods much the same basic turf—i.e., a sylvan gay cruising area in the French countryside. His central figure here, every bit as incessantly horny as all those naked guys in Stranger, is Armand Lacourtade (Ludovic Berthillot), a chubby, middle-aged tractor salesman who has grown tired of the random anonymousness of rural queer life. He becomes involved with a 16-year-old girl, Curly (Hafsia Herzi), whom he rescues from a gang of thugs one night.

As unlikely as it seems, these two lonely, disaffected souls fall for each other, despite the outright disapproval of her father Daniel (Luc Palun), Armand's company rival. Armand falls afoul of the law, necessitating him wearing a police bracelet, which doesn't prevent him from helping Curly escape from her obnoxiously smothering parents. They both go on the lam, with the law, as well as Daniel and a bunch of Armand's closeted gay cronies who are involved in contraband shenanigans of their own, in hot pursuit.

Willfully harum-scarum, The King of Escape plays out almost as a rough draft for the far more involving Stranger by the Lake's deeper, more effectively wrought concerns. On the basis of these two films, male sexual desire would seem to be Guiraudie's primary subject of interest, but, in this earlier work, it's almost as if he wasn't quite ready to completely admit it. The tangled, arbitrary, often confusing and undeveloped subplots involving the guys' secret nefariousness, and even Armand's quite unconvincing relationship with Curly, come across as cinematic smokescreens, almost as if the director didn't completely trust his innately lustful theme or his audience's interest in it, something he has now certainly gotten over.

If you don't take any of it too seriously and just go along for the picaresque ride, the film is rather diverting because of the agreeably idyllic settings, Guiraudie's obvious affection for his characters, and his deadpan observation of their eccentric country ways. Berthillot has enough humanity and gravitas—in every sense—to make you care for his character, even if Guiraudie, who might be identified as the first director to truly come out as a chubby-chaser, keeps him disconcertingly in his underwear briefs for more than half the movie. Herzi is all right, although Curly is very sketchily drawn and you never really understand the girl's motives. The other actors seem to be having fun, nakedly trysting al fresco and drugged out of their minds in a forest, or loquaciously assembling in bed in the all-together. That happens to be the last scene and what could almost be read as a starting point of the movie Guiraudie really wanted to make.

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