To cope with his midlife crisis, a gay middle-aged tractor salesman tries batting for the other team in the thoroughly entertaining character comedy “The King of Escape.” Normally quirky writer-director Alain Guiraudie (“No Rest for the Brave”) could have a niche hit on his hands here with critical support and the right marketing (including a snappier English title). Quietly wacky pic has definite, if limited, potential offshore as a niche item.
Armand Lacourtade (Ludovic Berthillot) is a tubby 43-year-old in southwestern France who’s indecisive, terminally lazy and not the sharpest tool in the shed. One night, he happens to rescue teenage Curly Durandot (Hafsia Herzi) from a bunch of bullies — typically, by paying them off, not punching them out — and gets slim thanks from her father, Daniel (Luc Palun), a rival salesman at the same small firm.
Curly, with all the passion of a 16-year-old, falls for her unlikely knight in faded armor, and Armand, who’s kind of bored with rural, middle-aged gaydom, responds to her uncomplicated vivacity and rebellious desire to run away from her horrid parents.
Pic doesn’t agonize over all the sexual issues it throws up, instead establishing an offbeat comic tone in which anything is possible. As in several of Guiraudie’s previous films, gay characters are simply part of life’s fabric — here more than anywhere — and not marked by any of the usual cliches. So when Curly and Armand try to get it on in the woods one day, it seems a pretty natural progression in the fluid state of things.
However, Curly’s father has other ideas — simply because he thinks Curly is too young and Armand is a slob — and files a complaint against him. The two lovers, who finally do get it on, try to go on the run, with the local cops, plus Daniel and his pals (who have their own secret to hide), on their tail.
Wafer-thin plot is more an excuse for parading a rich selection of character types than anything else, as, refreshingly, the movie never gets tied up in emotional angst or sexual guilt. Herzi, who sprang to attention in last year’s “The Secret of the Grain,” is excellent here as a simple force of nature, while Berthillot gives what must rank as one of the most minimal perfs in years. (Armand’s response to most situations is either a shrug or raised eyebrows.)
But it’s the surrounding characters who give the film its special comic flavor, from Francois Clavier’s lantern-jawed cop who pops up in the most unlikely places, to Armand’s boss, played by Pascal Aubert, who casually asks his employee for a very special favor. As a feisty old wrinkly, Jean Toscan provides some of the biggest laughs at the end.
Multitude of sex scenes — most in the open air — are staged with both wit and realism, sans visual explicitness. A marked strength of the movie is that it does succeed in making the unlikely central love affair believable within its own universe, framed by Sabine Lancelin’s no-frills but evocative lensing of summery locations around Toulouse.