Dir: Alain Guiraudie. 2009. France. 97 minutes.
France’s Alain Guiraudie scores his third film in Cannes Directors Fortnight in a decade with this oddball comedy about a 43-year-old gay man who makes a stab at going straight. Infused with unexpected streaks of whimsy and fantasy, The King of Escape should find a small audience in France but its international life will be limited to the gay and lesbian film festival circuit and gay-themed arthouse distributors.
Guiraudie’s film doesn’t tackle themes as old-fashioned as homophobia or gay-bashing. His myriad gay characters are all comfortably lodged into the texture of their society, in this case the small towns and farms of rural southwestern France. In The King of Escape, they go to cruising spots and have relationships, while everyone in the region seems indifferent to the fact they are gay.
The main character is Armand Lacourtade, a gentle, overweight agricultural equipment salesman (played by Ludovic Berthillot) who is tired of life as a single man and bored of the constant empty sex of the gay scene. One evening, he rescues a 16-year-old girl Curly (Herzi) from a bunch of teenage boys who are harassing her and she falls for him, starting a chain of events that will see them both go on the run from the police and her father who is also Armand’s boss.
Armand’s conclusion – that if the majority of the world settles down in straight relationships and has kids, maybe it will work for him – is flawed, but Guiraudie establishes early on in the film with a lengthy dream sequence that nothing should be taken too seriously in this world.
Alongside Berthillot and Herzi (so memorable as the bellydancing girl in The Secret Of The Grain/Couscous), the film features a colourful cast of supporting men such as Curly’s bullying father (Palun), the local police chief (Clavier), a gay farmer (Laur) and a well-endowed 70-year-old (Toscan) who befriends Armand. All of them are obsessed with an organic aphrodisiac called “do-root” that Laur is cultivating in the forest which has the same effect as Viagra while enabling the user to lose his inhibitions.
The fluidity of sexuality on show here marks a refreshing difference from the average film where gay is gay and straight is straight. When Armand propositions his boss, the boss replies that he is not attracted to him but will accept a blow job. The old man Toscan describes how during his heterosexual marriage, he used to have five or six guys a night, while the sex scenes between the bulky Berthillot and Herzi are explicit and apparently satisfactory to both parties. And by the final scene, Armand is back with a man and everybody is having sex with everybody else.
The most audacious move by Guiraudie is to cast Berthillot, a wonderfully sympathetic actor who is the antithesis of the gay stereotype – physically bulky and with bruised features that have seen him play cops or criminals in the past. Spending a good deal of the film running around the woods in his underwear, he brings confused vulnerability to Armand throughout his experiment in heterosexuality.
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