Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Wicked, Wicked World Of Jean Rollin

Many people have not heard of French film-maker Jean Rollin. I certainly don't think he's that obscure, but his name is lost on anyone who isn't a horror buff. Those who have seen his work usually have one of two reactions; they are either bored to the point of death within the first five minutes or eternally lost forever in his world of the fantastique.

I say this because if you do check him out, I don't want you coming back to me complaining. You will either love him or hate him. He's the Marmite of European horror cinema.

Or, at least, he was. Plagued with health problems, Rollin sadly died shortly after the completion of his final film, La Masque de la Meduse (2010).

But who is he? Why should you care? Well, to understand his work, you have to look at his formative years. His movies are dreamlike, unconscious distillations of various influences accumulated during his childhood. His films have a consistent iconography and mise en scene that gives the impression that his films are part of a greater, over-reaching story arc, or at least, take place in the same alternate universe where specific, pre-determined laws of nature apply. In interviews, he identifies the same key events in his life again and again as the catalysts behind his very unique work. Excluding films that he has made as a director-for-hire, the majority of his filmography cannot be mistaken as the work of anyone else.

Born in 1939, the major turning point in his life came when he was taken to the cinema by his mother. She originally intended to take him to see a Western but, by mistake, they ended up sitting down to watch the old Universal horror picture, The House of Dracula (1945). While watching the film, young Jean was both terrified and fascinated by the image of John Carradine's vampire and had nightmares about him for weeks afterwards. His fascination with pulp cinema was reinforced by the fact that a nearby train station possessed a small cinema that showed short films and episodes of Saturday morning movie serials like Flash Gordon (1936) and The Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940). In his teens, he and his family went on holiday to Dieppe and the strange coastline there reminded him of the works of Rene Magritte. The same beach would turn up again and again in almost every one of his films.

All this, combined with a life-long love of the painters like Clovis Trouille and Philippe Druillet, would form the heady ingredients in the cinematic stew of Rollin's productions.

After making a handful of short films in his twenties, Rollin's big break came when, in, 1968, he released Le Viol du Vampire (aka The Rape of the Vampire, 1968) onto an unsuspecting public.

It was originally intended as a short, commissioned by an American living in Paris, Sam Selski, who had acquired the distribution rights to a cheap, American grade-Z horror flick that proved too short for solo distribution and required a supporting featurette to go on a double bill with it. When Selski saw the very weird, very dreamlike and very violent final result, he decided to double his investment and have Rollin extend the movie to feature length. The trouble was that the entire cast had been killed in the first half-hour, so he invented The Queen of the Vampires and had her resurrect the lot of them. Things get pretty bonkers pretty quickly. Rollin freely admits that he lost his script within two days of the new shooting block beginning so ended up making the thing up as he went along. The symbolic, often violent imagery was all very clear to him at the time but in later interviews he states that even he can't remember what it all means. Naturally enough, this makes the movie fascinating - archaic pagan imagery is mixed with 60s Bohemianism; death and pain is mixed with free love and sex; the entire cast is slaughtered (twice); vampires with machine guns; a clinic for vampires; surreal dialogue that could mean everything or nothing; voodoo... it's too much for one film, which was great for Rollin because it was released during the May '68 riots and since it was the only new release in Paris during that period it became a massive hit, despite (or perhaps, because of) the fact that the movie often prompted cinema patrons to end up rioting themselves.

But it is his next film, La Vampire Nue (aka The Naked Vampire/The Nude Vampire, 1970) in which his signature style becomes fully developed.

The plot, involving a suicide cult who worship a beautiful, mute vampire girl, a corporate conspiracy to gain immortality using her blood and inter-dimensional mutants who are the next step in human evolution is straight out of the pulpy Saturday morning serials and comic books of Rollin's youth but the way the story is told, with rich colour photography and sparse dialogue, is like some fever dream. The film opens in laboratory in which strange, animal-masked figures in lab coats take blood samples from the naked vampire of the title as psychedelic chemicals mix in the background, and the weird chase that follows as black-garbed beast men creep through the night after the vampire and the spoilt rich kid who is investigating the mysterious goings-on at his billionaire father's townhouse are both played completely silently, giving us absolutely no clue as to what is going on. Plot points unfurl slowly and explanations are often given after the fact, so that Rollin always maintains a sense of mystery. By maintaining long passages of silence, the film also gives us time to take in the images. Every frame has the surreal other-worldliness of a Trouille painting and even though the entire film was shot on location, many of the interiors are lit and presented in such a way as to give the illusion of artificiality. Rollin has stated that he tries to paint with film and he succeeds.

It was also during filming that Rollin met Marie-Pierre and Cathy Castel, twin sisters who played the servants of the film's main villain. The motif of two young, often mute, girls would haunt Rollin's work ever since. Sometimes they are sisters, sometimes they are lovers but they are always there. He even tried not including them but they seemed to creep in as he was writing his screenplays anyway.

While his first two features had been independent efforts, put together with the help of friends, Le Frisson des Vampires (aka Shiver of the Vampires, 1971) was a result of a deal struck between Rollin and Films Modernes, which had recently fallen under the control of Monique Natan, widow of movie mogul Emile Natan. She had been approached by every great New Wave director in Paris but only Rollin managed to win her over. Andre Samarcq, manager of the company, had warned him that she had a veritable fetish for monochrome. He suggested bathing the locations in primary colours to had to the Gothic atmosphere and she was sold. Shooting took place at the Dungeon of Septmont, a breath-taking castle with pointed turrets and imposing battlements straight out of a fairytale. During the night scenes, bathed in pink light, it looks good enough to eat. It also has a fabulously awesome soundtrack by Acanthus...

Le Frisson des Vampires includes some of Rollin's most iconic images; a dead white dove upon a blood stained coffin; hundreds of gallons of blood flowing like a river down the castle's walls and, most famously, a female vampire, Isold (played by exotic nightclub dancer Dominque), emerging from a grandfather clock as it strikes midnight. It's also the first of his films to be overtly erotic. A newly wed couple arrive at the castle to find the occupants, cousins of the bride (Sandra Julien), dead. In mourning, she chooses to sleep alone, putting off the consummation of the marriage. At night, she is visited by the vampire Isold and seduced. Whereas most of Rollin's contemporaries like Jess Franco would linger on endless simulated sex scenes, drunkenly zooming in and out until we're dizzy and can't tell what's going on anymore, Rollin hardly moves his camera and, while showing nudity, doesn't actually show any overt sex at all. Interestingly, the films also solidifies Rollin as something of a feminist. His male leads often doggedly try to rescue the woman of their dreams from the bloodsuckers, only to find they do not want to be rescued and that the male heroes are not needed at all. Rollin's women never go with the heteronormative values of Hollywood and are never "the prize". They choose the men or women they will go off with in the end. Indeed, one female character, Isabelle (Nicole Nancel) is seen at the grave of the dead vampire hunters, mourning the loss of both of them because she was bride to both and, it seems, the three of them had been carrying on a very happy polyamorous relationship for years, thank you very much.

Next up, Rollin directed what may be, along with Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981), one of the inspirations for Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (2009). La Rose de Fer (The Iron Rose, 1973) tells the story of The Girl (Francoise Pascal) and The Boy (Hugues Quester) who meet at a wedding. The next day, they go for a picnic and find themselves in a massive rural cemetery in which weird, shadowy figures lurk, including glimpses of a sinister female Clown (Mireille Dargent), another reoccurring motif. The couple go down into a crypt and make love. When they emerge, they find it is night and that they cannot find any way out. It is left to the viewer as to whether the cemetery itself is somehow "alive", shifting its landscape around them, punishing them for a couple of minor acts of desecration or it is all in the character's heads. Over the course of one night, their sanity slowly degenerates and they become increasing abusive towards each other until The Girl buries The Boy alive. At dawn, she dances through the mist until she reaches the tomb and, smiling serenely to herself, joins him the grave. The last image is of a widow (Natalie Perrey) placing flowers on the sealed tomb. The film was made with Rollin's own money and had a very limited release. Fortunately, it is now available on DVD after years of obscurity. I personally have never seen any writing connecting the film with Antichrist but there are similarities in structure and style, if not themes.

Rollin followed this up with Requiem por un Vampire (aka Requiem for a Vampire/Virgins and Vampires, 1973), a very simple film that Rollin wrote over the course of one night.  The film follows the adventures of two girls in clown costumes, who, having escaped the scene of a crime, wonder about the countryside until they happen upon a castle where they are attacked by three barely human savages, themselves servants of the last vampire in existence, who plans to turn them into vampires themselves. One of the girls gives her virginity to a man she meets in a graveyard (the scene is actually quite cleverly shot, almost entirely as a close-up on  Marie-Pierre Castle's face). Despite the fact that some of the cemetery scenes directly reference the work of Trouille and some quite kinky BDSM-related imagery, it's a fairly minor work with very little story but it does occasionally throw up the odd bit of memorably imagery. Rollin himself regards it as one of his personal favourites.

In 1974, Rollin released what many regard to be his best film. Already struggling to keep himself out of the wave of sex films that were being released at the time, Rollin managed to secure financing for Lips of Blood. The story follows a young man, Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) and his attempts to piece together memories of his childhood. At a party launching a new perfume, he sees a poster depicting the ruins of a castle and has a sudden flashback to when, at the age of 12, he became lost one night "searching for the big black dog with the ripped ear". At the castle, he meets a mysterious girl in white named Jennifer (Annie Briand). When he tells all this to his Mother (Natalie Perrey) she warns him to be careful but denies any knowledge of the incident or the girl. She is clearly hiding something, however, because the Frederic feels no connection to the childhood she has described for him. As Frederic investigates, people around him start dying, with those trying to aid him shot by a mysterious assassin and those trying to hinder him attacked by four mysterious girls. What's more, he keeps catching glimpses of the girl from his childhood memories, exactly as she was all those years ago...

If you're new to Rollin, Lips of Blood is certainly a good place to start; it combines elements of the real and the imaginary almost perfectly. There are a few clunky moments, but given that Rollin had to work mainly with porn actors on an extremely low budget and finish the job in three weeks, it stands up very well. Due to the decline of low-budget horror films and the rise of hardcore porn in Europe during the 70s, Rollin was negotiating his deal based on his ability to make "proper" films on porno budgets. Still, there are some remarkable images and ideas such as two female vampires (the Castel twins, working together for the first time since La Vampire Nue) are impaled on the same stake, embracing each other as they die and, most famously, the ending, in which the two lovers seal themselves in a coffin and are carried away on the tied. As usual. the eroticism is languid, understated and a perfect example of less is more. Some of the locations are genuinely stunning; the beach at Dieppe is featured once again and the castle is suitably beautiful and mysterious. The dream-like atmosphere is aided by the haunting score by Didier William Lepauw. The film is probably a good yardstick; if you don't like it, then Jean Rollin ain't for you.

For the most part, the mid-to-late-70s were not kind to Rollin. The grind house cinemas where most of his work was shown had switched from horror to porn and for a few brief years, the only way to get a low budget film made in France was to make hardcore. Rollin did this, under various pseudonyms like Michel Gentil and Robert Xaxier, but was never particularly comfortable with it. He did, however regard the time as quite liberating because it was an opportunity to film something that had never been shown before and, at the time, hardcore films were viewed very differently. Deep Throat (1973) had made them trendy. Even Stanley Kubrick considered make one. Despite that, Rollin often left the room while the sex scenes were actually being filmed. The one good thing that came of it is that Rollin met actress Brigitte Lahaie.

Lahaie became Rollin's new muse and they worked together on several films. A stunningly beautiful woman, Rollin described her as a living painting or statue. Even today, she is breath taking. When, at the end of the 70s, it became possible to go back into production on the fantastique films Rollin was known for, he cast her in Les Raisins de la Mort (Grapes of Death, 1978), an eco-zombie movie about the effects of an experimental insecticed;

Fascination (1979), another vampire tale, this time with a more realistic premise involving a group of noblewomen who drink blood in an effort to stay young, a featuring Lahaie going nuts with a scythe;

...and La Nuit des Traquees (Night of the Hunted, 1980), a Cronenbergesque thriller about the victims of a mysterious brain disease locked in a sinister scientific institute housed in a tower block.

He also made La Morte Vivante (Living Dead Girl, 1982), one of his most commercially successful films. Combining beautiful photography and poetic images with some pretty nasty gore, it also gave rise to the Rob Zombie track of the same name.

Throughout the 80s, Rollin was once again forced to take jobs directing porno, completing Jess Franco films when the Saucy Spaniard failed to turn up, script doctoring and doing uncredited directing work on films with major production problems like the disastrous Emmanuelle 6 (1986).

Thank God, this was not to last. In the 90s, he began not only started a career as a successful horror novelist but made a comeback to the world of cinema as well. Dispite the fact that Rollin had managed to make a few more personal works in the 1980s, most were very low budget independent productions such as Purdues dans New York (Lost in New York, 1989), a surreal, time-travel fantasy tale of two young girls lost in time, made (apparently) with left over film stock from a commercial Rollin had shot. It's only 52 minutes long but worth checking out, especially as the current DVD release contains some of his rare, early shorts as well. However, after making the low-budget action movie Killing Car (1993) and doing uncredited work on the Marc Dorcel porno Le Parfum de Mathilde (1994), Rollin was given a chance to turn one of his novels into a film by a producer at Cannal +. The result was Les Deux Orphelines Vampires ( Two Orphan Vampires, 1996). The result is rather tepid and feels slightly compromised in that it harks back to his 70s films but without the sex, blood and violence he was known for. It was a step forward in terms of his commercialism, however and it paved the way for him to make his most expensive film, La Fiancee de Dracula (Dracula's Fiancee, 2002).

Unlike other directors of Rollin's generation like Jess Franco or Paul Naschy, Rollin's modern films were not out-dated attempts to recapture past glories, nor do they display any evidence of an old nag on his last legs. La Fiancee de Dracula is made with all the care and skill of his early works and is filled with just as many great ideas. It's worth seeing his earlier films first because he revisits and references so many of them that it begins to feel like he is tying everything together into a over-reaching masterwork. Dracula (Thomas Desfosse) appears out grandfather clocks, there's chain smoking nuns, Clovis Trouille paintings, sitcom star Magalie Madison as a baby-eating ogress, the return of the eternally beautiful Brigitte Lahaie and another trip to his favourite beach. Other locations, such as the island from Demoniacs (1973) are also revisited. Overall, the film has the feel of a swan-song as Rollin packs in as many nods to his fans as he can. Even thematically, the film harks back to his earlier movies by having a damsel in distress who does not want to be rescued with the hero's dogged pursuit of her leading to his own downfall.

Despite the fact that, since Killing Car, Rollin had been threatening to retire due to his ill-health, he went on to complete two more features; the bloody creepy La Nuit des Horloges (Night of the Clocks, 2007)

..and La Masque de la Meduse (The Mask of Medusa, 2009). Both of these were screened at film festivals and they are currently only available in the form of an extremely limited run of special edition DVDs.

I'll leave you with a clip of M. Rollin himself...

I'm sure I don't need to mention it but I seriously caution you to avoid dubbed versions of his films like the plague. Although the English-language version of La Vampire Nue is almost flawless, the dialogue in his films has a weird poetic lyricism to it, that is totally lost in most English-language versions. The dubbing on Le Frission des Vampires and Fiancee de Dracula (2002) are particularly awful. Indeed, one scene in Le Frisson des Vampires is completely ruined by the fact that, for some reason, the hero's internal monologue can be heard rambling on about what the vampires are wearing, when in the original version they are allowed to explain major plot points without a disembodied voice speaking over them.

1 comment:

  1. You really should get in contact with film magazines you know, see if they want to run a feature of any sorts. Very enjoyable! :) xxx