In The King of Escape, we can already see the kernels of Alain Guiradie’s obsession with cruising as a way of life. While Stranger by the Lake strips the practice down to its bare bones in a tour de force of unparalleled concision and precision, his earlier film is a scruffier affair (literally), where cruising is embedded in the everyday life of a rural French town in unabashedly banal ways. Here the woods function as a mermaid-like call to shelter the horniness of not only gay men, but rugged straight men’s weakness for circle jerks. If in Stranger by the Lake the spectacle of perpetual looking unfolds in an enclave of gay men secluded from “the real world” and all of its killjoy sublimations, in The King of Escape “the real world” itself is comprised of men who are either constantly on the prowl or guiltlessly open to the possibility of an open-air blow job from a stranger if the opportunity presents itself.
The story revolves around Armand (Ludovic Berthillot), a plump regular Joe who sells tractors for a living and has a fondness for mature men, yet finds himself caught in a sexual relationship with a teenage girl, Curly (Hafsia Herzi), triggering the fury of her overbearing father and the town’s sheriff. They first meet when Curly is about to be gang-raped by a group of teenage boys and Armand bribes them not to do it. After his life-saving intervention, she clings on to him as a way to escape her crappy domestic situation and nurture dreams of romance. Armand eventually gives in to Curly’s come-ons and has sex with her (his first time with a girl), and continues to do so, even after being caught and having to wear a sex-offender bracelet; it’s a good thing Curly has no qualms about sawing it right off his wrist.
The moralistic response that such an affair (solely sexual for him, teeming with romantic fantasy for her) would normally elicit is missing both from Guiraudie’s tone and from the other characters in the film, who nurture a disarming casualness in relation to all things sexual. If Curly’s father and the sheriff chase after Armand for the entirety of the film, they seem less concerned with the question of consent (as does Armand, when it comes to Curly’s refusal to having anal) as they are irked by his ability to so easily find pleasure everywhere.
There’s a mixture of cynicism and absolute self-assurance in Guiraudie’s voice in both films. This is felt in the fairy tale-like succinctness of Stranger by the Lake, and it’s embodied in The King of Escape through the plainness of its sound and bold depiction of its characters’ physicality: The horny bodies in the film are the sort we’ve learned to deem un-sexy and non-sexual. Cruising for Guiraudie seems to be the way of nature, a drive that doesn’t discriminate. If one were to strip the social from all the cultural etiquette, what would be left, the film suggests, would be the incessant meetings of bodies and pleasures—unencumbered by who is supposed to fit with/inside what.
In The King of Escape, there’s nothing underground or shocking about fucking: strangers, acquaintances, teenagers, or co-workers. Impromptu sex, like Armand giving head to his boss, is part and parcel of the human experience, like having a coffee or a beer. Cruisers also don’t abide by the restriction of sexual-orientation categories or the ideals/ordeals behind the cartoonish masculinity that abounds in online profiles. This is an idyllic kind of cruising in which men are chubby, bald, gray-haired, and slacker-looking normal folk just going about life, accepting joie de vivre wherever they happen to find it. Something the French, and perhaps only the French, know a thing or two about.