In some ways Jean Rollin’s 1981 film The Escapees (Les paumées du petit matin) would seem to be a radical departure for him. There are no vampires and no supernatural elements, nor are there any of the science fictional elements that characterised his 1980s zombie movies. But in fact the lack of vampires makes no real difference at all. This is still a Rollin film, it has the feel of a Rollin film and it displays exactly the same preoccupations as his vampire movies.
The making of the movie was beset with considerable difficulties as his distributors forced Rollin to accept an outside screenwriter (Jacques Ralf ) who rewrote the director’s original script. Unfortunately this new script was more or less unfilmable so Rollin ended up shooting the movie mostly from his own original script but incorporating the better elements of Ralf’s contribution. Rollin wasn’t entirely happy with the result, nor were the distributors, and the movie pretty much disappeared without trace.
Some years later a cable TV channel bought a package deal of the director’s movies and on a whim he threw in The Escapees as well. When people finally got to see the movie their reaction was surprisingly favourable and as a result Rollin rediscovered his own movie and decided it wasn’t so bad after all. In fact considering its troubled production history (and other problems caused by the very limited budget on which it was made) it’s a surprisingly successful effort.
Two girls are confined to a lunatic asylum. Marie has cut off herself off from the real world entirely and is virtually catatonic. Michelle is the opposite - she confronts the world much too aggressively. Locked in her room and confined in a straightjacket she spots Marie through her window, sitting in her rocking chair in the garden and endlessly rocking back and forth. She tries to attract her attention, and (against the odds) she succeeds in doing so, for one brief moment breaking through the wall Marie has built around herself. Marie comes up to her room and releases her from the straitjacket. Michelle announces her intention of escaping from the hospital, and Marie insists on coming along as well. Michelle is appalled that she’s going to have this strange disconnected girl tagging along after her but she has little choice.
After leaving the asylum the girls have a series of encounters with other groups of outsiders. As Rollin explains in the accompanying interview, the girls have no world of their own, no place in which they belong (when asked where she intends to go the only answer Michelle can offer is that she wants to go elsewhere, to any elsewhere at all), and they now come into contact with three other very different worlds, all populated by misfits of one sort or another. They meet a travelling carnival on the road, and befriend a likeable thief named Sophie. The star attractions of the carnival are its two beautiful black exotic dancers, who are also prepared to offer private entertainments to male patrons for an additional fee. Later they find themselves in the seedy but fascinating world of Madame Louise’s cabaret. Lastly they discover the world of the bored and decadent rich who are slumming it in the cabaret, and Marie find herself the target of an attempted seduction by a lesbian couple, while Michelle must fend off the advances of the lesbians’ rather smooth male friend. The inability of both Marie and Michelle to cope with this situation triggers off the rather unexpectedly violent ending.
All these worlds encountered by the girls are somehow unreal. They’re not the real world, or perhaps the real world actually is just as strange and perhaps none of us know if the world we inhabit is real. Rollin has always been indebted to the surrealists and that influence works particularly well in this case, especially given the fact that we’re seeing events through the eyes of two girls who were after all inmates of an asylum for the incurably mentally ill. They don’t look at the world in a conventional way, but who is to say if their view of the world is more or less valid than anyone else’s. This is a Rollin movie, so reality is not exactly a fixture that can be taken for granted.
This movie also illustrates more clearly and more effectively than any of his other films the influence on Rollin of his favourite painter, Camille Clovis Trouille, especially in the carnival and cabaret scenes.
As in so many of his movies we once again have the twinned female protagonists, and as always there is the question whether they are doubles or refections of one another, or possibly aspects of a single woman, or of all women. As the girls are mad this twinning becomes more interesting. Both are in a sense incomplete. Marie is terrified of sex, Michelle is terrified of showing her feelings. Marie is excessively introverted, Michelle is the opposite. By being together they become complete. There’s no suggestion of any kind of lesbian attraction between the girls - it’s more like a sisterly bond of a particularly intense kind, so intense that they are almost one person, united against the world.
The performances of Laurence Dubas as Michelle and Christiane Coppé as Marie are exceptionally effective. Rollin favourite Brigitte Lahaie has a relatively minor role as one of the wealthy lesbians, and as usual in Rollin’s movies she’s very good, and of course looks stunning. The Escapees has a very similar feel to Rollin’s very unconventional zombie movie Night of the Hunted, made a year earlier. Both movies have a desolate feel to them, with stark modern settings replacing the gothic settings of his earlier films but with the result being a kind of urban industrial gothic atmosphere. There’s also a wonderful and strangely moving scene in a deserted ice rink (much to his delight Rollin discovered that Christiane Coppé was a champion figure skater and decided to make use of her talent). By the standards of the average Rollin film there’s very little sex and nudity, in fact there’s none at all until very late in the picture. This works rather well, since it’s clear that both girls have some major issues in this area so that when they’re finally confronted by a sexual situation it makes the dramatic ending more effective and more convincing. As in Night of the Hunted the sex scenes are used sparingly but they’re crucially important.
The Escapees is not a perfect film, but it’s still one of Rollin’s most interesting efforts. If you’re a fan of his work I highly recommend this one, although if you’re not familiar with his movies it’s probably not the best place to start. The Redemption DVD looks pretty good considering that this was very nearly a lost film, and it includes a very worthwhile interview with the director.