La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Jean Rollin

Flesh and Blood The Cinema of Jean Rollin

 

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Redemption Films and Kino Lorber have joined forces to release Redemption’s catalogue of Jean Rollin films in spectacular new Blu-ray editions, beginning with an opening salvo of five titles. Longtime Euro-cult fans, familiar with Rollin in a variety of previous DVD versions, will know what to expect. A word to the uninitiated, however, would not be inappropriate: Entering Rollin’s cinematic world may require higher than usual levels of what the poet Samuel Coleridge termed “the willing suspension of disbelief,” but hang in there, the rewards are multifarious. Slow and seemingly disjointed, Rollin’s erotic horror films don’t proceed along well-worn, generically approved grooves, their rhythms closer to the freewheeling jazz that provides the score for his second feature, The Nude Vampire, than, say, the more conventional dramatic structure of a Hammer vampire film. Nudity is de rigueur, and deployed without shame. As a rule, violence is entirely histrionic, presented as little more than an abstract rhetorical gesture, an excuse for the spilling of copious amounts of stage blood. No coincidence, then, that parts of Rollin’s first and final features were shot inside the legendary Grand Guignol theater, the premiere venue for stage fright and splatter. When it comes to directing actors drawn largely from the ranks of the amateur or else recruited from the less salubrious realms of pornography, soft and hard, Rollin can be considered the Robert Bresson of Euroshock; his characters tend to declaim poetically wrought lines in a flat, affectless, nearly somnambulistic manner that only adds to the films’ off-kilter and dreamlike atmosphere.

With plenty of flesh on display, an illogical and fitfully developed storyline about a vampire-worshipping suicide cult, and the uncanny presence of twin actresses Catherine and Mary-Pierre Castel (at least one of whom will recur in most of Rollin’s ’70s films), The Nude Vampire, from 1970, is a fitting introduction to Rollin’s work. Moreover, it’s a film not without a sly and self-deprecating sense of humor. Witness the scene near the end when two minor characters exit the frame in an extended long shot while debating whether the film’s events have made a bit of sense. They haven’t, but not to worry, striking imagery and the bold use of bright colors carry the day. Among the film’s many indelible visions: animal-masked figures pursuing the bareback bloodsucker of the title through deserted, nighttime Parisian streets, the massive baroque chateau that plays host to the film’s oddball climax, and a stretch of rock-strewn beach below lowering cliffs, strewn with lichen-stained pilings and ruined WWI-era bunker, the scene of a coda that launches The Nude Vampire into a kind of Dada science fiction. Rollin obsessively returns to this same strand time and again in his films because it contained a sliver of childhood memory that haunted him throughout his life, a theme he developed most fully in 1975’s Lips of Blood.

The Shiver of the Vampires, from 1971, boasts one of Rollin’s most surreally incongruous images: At the stroke of midnight, female vampire Isabelle (Nicole Nancel) emerges from the constrained quarters of a grandfather clock to seduce innocent young newlywed Isle (Sandra Julien). Sexuality in the film tends toward the perverse. Intimations of ménage-a-trois and gratuitous lesbianism feature prominently, although tone and pacing move the humor into parody, closer to Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers than Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness; as does a scene where the hardback contents of the chateau’s library fly off the shelves to attack Isle’s husband Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand). Shiver of the Vampires’s look amps up the brash colors from the previous film, splashing them across the castle’s exterior, and flooding the interiors with blood reds and midnight blues.

The Iron Rose, from 1973, is one of Rollin’s most direct and effective films, a melancholy tone poem on love and death that was filmed almost entirely in a massive, seemingly endless cemetery. The premise couldn’t be simpler: A young couple (Françoise Pascal, Hugues Quester) meet at a wedding reception after the man declaims some lines from the Symbolist poet Tristan Corbière. They agree to see each other the next day, and wind up lost in the vast cemetery, wandering ever deeper into the mounting gloom and falling night. Something comes over the girl, maybe the spirit of the place, or just maybe some passing spirit possesses her; in any case, she falls, as Keats would have it, half in love with easeful death. The Iron Rose’s macabre conclusion entails a typical Rollin inversion whereby the living are shown to be the living dead, and it is only the dead who truly live. As with any Rollin film, viewer response with stand or fall on their tolerance of (or even fondness for) this concatenation of poetry and fatalism. A taste for the decadent wouldn’t hurt either.

Lips of Blood, among Rollin’s most personal films, is a downright Proustian exploration of memory’s power to impose lifelong compulsions, and a weirdly Oedipal fable that wallows in family dysfunction. It’s also one of Rollin’s most self-reflexive ventures, given the scene where protagonist Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) enters a movie theater, drawn inside by Philippe Druillet’s incredible psychedelic poster art for The Nude Vampire—though, in fact, it’s excerpts from The Shiver of the Vampires that are shown on the tiny art-house screen. Frédéric is haunted by visions of a girl in white he encountered as a young boy, unsure finally whether they’re a dream or a true memory. Seeking the girl across one of Rollin’s most successfully rendered nighttime cityscapes, Frédéric involuntarily unleashes a plague of vampires, before discovering the terrible truth behind his memories. Lips of Blood ends with another fusion of sex and death: two lovers closed up in the same coffin as the casket slowly drifts out to sea, tempest-tossed by the churning waves.

Fascination, from 1979, takes the viewer into “a universe of madness and death,” as one of the characters aptly phrases it. Early scenes in the slaughterhouse call to mind George Franju’s disturbing documentary short Blood of the Beasts. Discordant doesn’t begin to describe the vision of lovely actresses gussied up in period costumes standing ankle-deep in the detritus of a charnel house, the floor and walls covered in slowly congealing blood, hanks of flesh strewn about like the aftermath of some terrible feast. The setup is among Rollin’s more straightforward, involving a gang of thieves, stolen gold, an isolated and largely empty chateau (naturally), and a cult of bourgeois bloodsuckers. Though their class origins are firmly establishing, precious little in the way of politics is ever made of them. Per usual, Rollin is more concerned with the primacy of the image, and he fashions another memorable set piece when curvaceous Brigitte Lehaie, clad only in a riding cloak, takes a scythe to several of the crooks. In Fascination, more than any other film in the set, the sexuality is staged in a manner befitting French erotica; it isn’t surprising to learn that Rollin filmed several of the sexual encounters in varying degrees of “hardness.” But the erotic enticements here are to a purpose: a seductive trap slowly closing around Mark.

As with any auteur (and I don’t hesitate to use that vaunted word here), it helps to recognize where the filmmaker is coming from and what he hopes to achieve. In their book on European “sex and horror” films, Immoral Tales, Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs do an admirable job of adumbrating the converging streams of influence on Rollin’s sensibility: “the frenetic, pulp poetry of Gaston Leroux, sexy comic book imagery, the bitter romanticism of Tristan Corbière, the political surrealism of Buñuel and Franju, and the poetic realism of Jacques Prévert.” Compounding further Rollin’s indebtedness to the avant-garde is the fact that renegade surrealist Georges Bataille was a family friend who used to regale the young Jean with bedtime stories, doubtless of a highly unusual vintage. “Highly unusual” also aptly describes the films Rollin ended up making. Granted, they may be an acquired taste, still it is one well worth cultivating. Once you achieve a receptive frame of mind, a mental state situated somewhere in that still largely undiscovered country between waking and dream, undisturbed by questions of logic or plausibility, the unique and indisputably poetic charms of Rollin’s films (and they are many) can properly unspool before your astonished eyes.