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William Friedkin: Auteur of Existential Dread

William Friedkin’s films are obsessed with the ambiguity of villainy and the perishability of the human spirit.

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William Friedkin: Auteur of Existential Dread
Photo: Photofest

In 1949, The Washington Post carried the headline, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” The boy, a 14-year-old later given the pseudonym Roland Doe, was very likely mentally ill, and he was purportedly subjected to between 20 and 30 “performances of the ancient ritual of exorcism.” The article was rife with inaccuracies, from the location of the alleged exorcism to the names of those involved. It was, simply, a captivating lie, and it became a national sensation. The questionable ordeal caught the attention of a Georgetown student named William Peter Blatty, inspiring him to write, some 20 years later, his novel The Exorcist, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 weeks. In 1973, it was adapted into a film by William Friedkin, who helmed the project after it was turned down by Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Stanley Kubrick, and Mike Nichols. Both the novel and the film are, to this day, said to be “based on a true story.”

The Exorcist caused a furor. Accounts of heart attacks and projectile vomiting during public screenings are, like the story that inspired the film, exaggerated, or outright fabricated, but they speak to the film’s galvanizing power, little of which has been lost in the four decades since its release. The Exorcist ’s many accolades were unprecedented for a horror film (it famously became the first one to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards), and Friedkin became one of the most desirable directors in Hollywood.

The histrionic stories enfolding The Exorcist, and the way Friedkin discusses them, reveal a kind of navel-gazing raconteur quality about the film’s progenitor. Friedkin, one of the most demanding and unflinchingly outspoken directors to emerge during the New Hollywood era, talks about his films defensively, fervidly, without pretending to peddle in objectivity. His newest, the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, purportedly about an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, is instead, from its opening moments, a film about Friedkin and the legacy of The Exorcist. His is the first voice we hear, as he intones solemnly standing before the “Exorcist steps” in Georgetown, unironically recalling Rod Serling with his stoical narration, and his is the presence that captivates. He’s an enthusiastic, lively talker, his hands cutting through the air to emphasize a point, his voice clear and unabraded by age.

On the occasion of The Devil and Father Amorth’s release, the Metrograph in Manhattan is showing four of Friedkin’s films: The Exorcist, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A., and Killer Joe. What’s immediately clear from this mini-retro is that Friedkin’s legacy is, and always will be, tethered to The Exorcist, the film about which he’s almost certainly asked the most during interviews, and to date one of only two to get a director’s cut, the other being Jade. Indeed, Friedkin’s reputation dropped significantly after Sorcerer—though that film, like so many maligned ones before and after, has been reevaluated in recent years—and was further sullied by Cruising, which was heavily hewn and spliced into a shorter, less coherent cut from Friedkin’s original version.

For years, Friedkin insisted that Sorcerer failed because of the popularity of Star Wars, rather than Sorcerer’s showy marketing scheme and misleading title, which suggests a fantasy instead of the grueling existential downer it is. He has always had a nihilistic streak and a predilection for intense, squalid entertainment, a prowess for visceral impact, and with Sorcerer, he found the sublime combination of nihilism and spectacle, angst and exhilaration. The film concerns four men, four castaway souls hiding in a squalid, middle-of-nowhere South American town: a hitman, a French businessman, a terrorist, and an Irish mafia getaway driver. In order to earn the money to escape this hellish vicinage, they embark on a mission of Sisyphean desperation, driving decrepit trucks loaded with highly labile explosives across the unforgiving terrain of the jungle. It’s a futile journey—they use two trucks in the likelihood that one will not make it—but they have no other choice.

Friedkin uses colors to conjure a variegated, hyper-saturated existential nightmare. With its dense, ubiquitous greens, the jungle of Sorcerer resembles a verdant maw that seems to be swallowing the characters alive. Throughout, the searing reds of fire and spilled blood starkly contrast all the forest greens. During the film’s climax—an oneiric drive through canyons that, captured in wide master shots, suggest a purgatorial realm—flashes flash ethereally as the sky turns purple, as if bruised. Compare the colors in Sorcerer to the stark blacks and frosty white walls of The Exorcist, which Friedkin once described as being akin to a black-and-white film. Faces of disturbing pallor appear in the corners of the frame, or flash almost subliminally during moments of respite, the dichotomy of hues reflecting that of good and evil.

As Jackie Scanlon, Roy Scheider, the closest thing to an A-list star in Sorcerer, is all sinew and sorrow, hollowed-out eyes, and thousand-yard stares—a performance of ferocious corporeality and weathered dread, the kind that feels less like acting than simply existing. His face looks like a piece of old leather beaten and sutured back together, his lean arms protruding from rolled-up sleeves and scrawled with veins. Compare his physicality to that of Bruno Cremer’s French businessman, who can afford coffee and food in the local café, who’s lived a life of affluence and grown discernibly soft around the middle, or Francisco Rabal’s hitman, who moves with a languor afforded to those accustomed to comfort. Watch as Scheider grows despondent when the coterie of men comes across a fallen tree—the way he tries to hack his way through the jungle with an old machete, swinging madly, an inferno in his eyes. The malaise has dispersed and been replaced by a brutal, instinctive desire to life, a fear of dying in this green hellscape.

Friedkin’s gift with actors isn’t often discussed, but his best films are all anchored by great, sometimes career-best performances: the perpetually under-appreciated Scheider in Sorcerer; Ellen Burstyn as the tormented mother in The Exorcist (as well as first-time actor Jason Miller, a playwright, who, like Burstyn, earned an Oscar nomination for the film); and, perhaps most startlingly, Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe. This last film, adapted from the play by Tracy Letts, could be considered the preamble to the “McConaissance.” With a condensed intensity and salacious terror, McConaughey plays a detective who does little detecting and has a side gig as a $25,000-a-hit killer. What begins as a deep-fried hunk of sleazy comedy, about an inept family of trailer park trash plotting to kill their matriarch for her insurance policy, gradually turns into a depraved horror story about the nuclear family. It’s a sordid, stylish monster of a film, with its loquacious characters spinning inane ploys, talking themselves to death.

Letts’s play has nothing but contempt for its characters, but Friedkin’s fascination with the irredeemable and iniquitous never veers into caricature or condescension. By the time Gina Gershon fellates a chicken leg, the oleaginous piece of meat dripping with her blood, Friedkin has abandon any notion of decency, and you almost feel bad for the film’s pitiable lowlifes. He pulls no punches, quite literally: When McConaughey slugs Gershon in the face, Friedkin cuts to an abrupt close-up and her battered face, nose exploded. It very well might be more upsetting than anything in The Exorcist.

A visceral, tangible quality marks all of Friedkin’s best work. His films are exhausting, almost punishing. He doesn’t shy away from violence, from the sight of ravaged flesh. Think of the possessed girl’s face in The Exorcist, mangled and green, the skin split and oozing, or poor Gershon in Killer Joe, the blood pouring down her face as she serves McConaughey some KFC. Friedkin’s films all share a worldview and an obsession with the concomitant of decisions, with redemption and the futility of hope. All actions have serious consequences, from car chases that result in collateral damage to a crucifix, jabbed into a girl’s crotch, that draws blood. This unavoidable, unequivocal sense of consequence is at the heart of Sorcerer. The men must be aware of their every move, and at all times, or else they risk setting off their volatile explosives. And yet nothing they do will help them outrun their encroaching doom. They can survive every obstacle they face—say, a skinny, unstable rope bridge, across which their truck sputters and shakes, spewing smoke like some snarling monster from a fantastical world—and it doesn’t matter. They can’t outrun the consequences of the decisions that landed them in this situation.

Friedkin’s films can have a vast, almost ontological feeling, but he’s never been a showy, gaudy director. He’s no minimalist, but he rarely over-directs, preferring clear shots and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Exorcist may be a special effects-laden blockbuster, but it sustains an intimately unsettling atmosphere. It’s a nightmare occurring in a bedroom, a place of supposed solace, of vulnerability. For the sparse, disturbingly fraught Bug, another Letts adaptation, Friedkin again makes a bedroom unnerving. Restricted to one location, a motel room, he manages to create a hermetic, insane world culled from the paranoia of a lunatic. In Sorcerer, a scene of the men preparing to blow up a fallen tree is shown in detail, each step accounted for, while the eventual shot of the tree exploding is done in one simple static take, instead of cutting to various angles, as is the norm in action films.

Despite the deteriorated mental and moral states of his characters, Friedkin prefers clarity in his films. Like the car chase in To Live and Die in L.A. that sees William Petersen’s Richard Chance barreling down the wrong side of the highway, pursued by gunmen; notice how long the shots last, how the entire frame is utilized, the consequent crashes and pile-ups left in the man’s wake. The film is a neon-hued neo-noir, the most epochal of Friedkin’s great films, with its synth score (by British new wave group Wang Chung) and panoply of tight acid-washed jeans, and also maybe the purest display of his obsession with seedy underbellies, with corruption and the ambiguity of villainy and the perishability of the human spirit, a relatively simple story of revenge and crime turned into another one of the director’s explorations of amorality.

Richard is a federal agent whose partner is killed by Willem Dafoe’s creepy artist cum psychopath, Eric Masters. This man of the law jettisons any pursuit of justice and becomes the thing he’s chasing, another of Friedkin’s themes (see also The Hunted, in which a covert assassin for the U.S. Army goes on a renegade killing spree, and is pursued by his former teacher). Characters may be charismatic, or dreamily handsome, but that doesn’t make them good guys, and doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to corruption—the allure and excitement of criminality. Interpolated shots transcribe characters’ thoughts during moments of heightened angst. During the car chase, Richard thinks back to a bungee jump from earlier in the film; he’s an adrenaline junkie, and a car chase is just another high for him, while his partner, who will gradually inherit Richard’s soiled morality, is haunted by regrets.

Regrets plague most of Friedkin’s characters, and their attempts to ameliorate their anxieties and afflictions rarely work out. In this regard, The Exorcist, with its restorative ending—the priest-in-doubt’s faith rejuvenated and the young girl’s eternal soul saved—is at odds with Friedkin’s other films. Perhaps this is why it remains his most successful: For all its chthonic horrors and barbarity, The Exorcist is ultimately hopeful. Friedkin would never again permit such an ending, and he would never again find such resounding success.

William Friedkin will run from April 19—23 at the Metrograph.

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To Rome with Woody

There’s something highly appropriate about sitting before an all-star dais at the press conference for To Rome with Love.

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To Rome with Woody
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

There’s something highly appropriate about sitting before an all-star dais at the press conference for Woody Allen’s latest, To Rome with Love. More than just another valentine to a foreign city, the film is a droll and buoyant commentary on fame, much like Allen’s Celebrity was 14 years ago. Its four simultaneous storylines concern an ambitious young architect (Jesse Eisenberg) wooing an actress (Ellen Page) easily seduced by A-List glitz, an impressionable bride-to-be (Alessandra Mastronardi) besotted with the superstars of Italian cinema, a retired American opera director (Allen) determined to bring success to a simple mortician (Fabio Armiliato) with a booming tenor’s voice, and a gangly everyman (Roberto Benigni) who wakes one day to find himself inexplicably swarmed by paparazzi. It’s all very much akin to the bustling scene in a Park Avenue hotel ballroom, where Allen, Page, Mastronardi, Penélope Cruz, Greta Gerwig, and a post-photog-scuffle Alec Baldwin are bombarded with questions and camera flashes. Star worship is one of many key topics of the day, particularly when it comes to Allen, who receives no shortage of adoration from his actors.

Eager and eloquent when not brooding with lips pursed, Baldwin declares that Allen is peerless and “on his own island in terms of filmmaking.” He adds, “With Woody Allen, you have someone who is responsible for more memorable moments on every level—writing, producing, directing, and acting—than any other person who’s ever lived in film, really. Woody Allen’s less successful efforts are better than most other films you see. And when you see the greatest films he’s made, they’re some of the greatest films ever made. So when he calls you and asks you to do this for him, and you’re available, you go. You want to hitch a ride and be a part of it.”

Cruz, who’s by far the most breezy star on the panel, her smile beaming and her chin often resting in her palm, speaks of Allen in the same way that she extols Pedro Almodóvar—like a giddy fan with a heap of the auteur’s DVDs at home. “I’ve always tried to look at him and forget all the admiration and all the beautiful moments I’ve experienced watching his work,” Cruz says, prompting Allen to offer a playful headshake of faux arrogance. “Because if I didn’t try to put that aside and do what I have to do, I would be starstruck the whole time. It still happens to me when I’m with him. I find him so fascinating. I’m lucky that I get to be directed by him, but I’m also lucky that I get to hang out with him and hear him speak. He makes me laugh all day long.”

“I love his films more than I love any films,” mutters Gerwig, a still-budding starlet whose gentle voice nearly fails her. “I wouldn’t live in New York if it weren’t for his movies, and I wouldn’t be an actor if it weren’t for his movies. I spent a lot of time imitating characters from his films. I’ve learned what books to read from references made in his films.”

Gerwig surely isn’t the only fan to stock her cultural archive thanks to Allen’s in-text citations. If Allen is first a wildly prolific artist worthy of unabated reverence, he is second a deliverer of quippy cultural CliffsNotes, which he’s handed to audiences in everything from Annie Hall to Midnight in Paris, a film that teemed with broad sketches of the 20th century’s most influential creative icons. To Rome with Love, Allen’s inevitably scrutinized Midnight in Paris follow-up, features yet more culturati fodder, particularly via Page’s name-dropping and poet-quoting starlet, whom Baldwin’s character, a half-magical tourist reliving his own past, almost self-reflexively mocks as a corner-cutting phony, who knows just enough about Rilke and Gaudí to seem sufficiently enlightened. Allen insists there are no pretenses or delusions behind his penchant for literate themes and references, and nor has he been on a personal quest to broaden the minds of viewers. Conversely, he’s merely dishing out what’s always made him laugh.

“I just find that stuff funny,” Allen says. “I’m not an intellectual at all, but I find intellectuals amusing. So when I write, I write about them in comic dilemmas and comic situations. If I was pressed as an intellectual, I’d be dead. But as a writer, making jokes about them, I can do that. For whatever reason, whatever accident, I happen to find that part of the social milieu amusing, and it all seems to come out inadvertently in everything I do.”

For a man who avoids the center-stage pageantry of accepting Academy Awards, Allen is a markedly candid and comfortable target for the press, and his laidback, layman’s responses support his self-professed stance as a non-intellectual. He’s self-effacing to an almost suspicious fault, as if he’s trying a bit too hard to crack some presumed perception of ego, but what he has to say seems genuinely uncomplicated, and it repeatedly dismantles today’s most common inquiries about his career. Why does he continue to shoot abroad? Because it’s cheap. Are Cruz and Scarlett Johansson his new muses? No, that’s silly. Does he know why Midnight in Paris was his biggest financial success? Not a clue. The 76-year-old is at his most amusing when wryly skewering his own craft, in a rant that, however exaggerated, activates the familiar persona he dons whenever starring in his own work.

“I start off with very great ambitions,” he says. “I want to make Citizen Kane. And I shoot the film, and then when I get into the editing room, I realize that I screwed up, irredeemably. I edit the film in any configuration that will avoid embarrassment. I put the beginning at the end, take the middle out, change things. The editing process becomes the floundering of a drowning man. I go in there, and I have various themes, and I’m gonna edit this thing like it’s Potemkin or something, but it doesn’t work out that way. I’m just in there selling out left and right, just losing every ounce of integrity I have and trying to survive.”

Allen may remain lighthearted about his efforts, eliciting plenty of knowing laughs from his interrogators, but his modest cracks can’t burst the bubble of earnest respect that hovers over the press event from start to finish. The venue is loaded with people visibly affected by his presence, their faces not unlike that of Mastronardi’s Rome-perusing cinephile. To share space with a gorgeous talent like Cruz is lovely and surreal, but to be in a room with Allen is something else entirely. Chatting up an old friend in a refreshments lounge just after the conference, he gets ogled like he’s some lasting, vintage machine behind invisible velvet ropes, his interior moving parts grinding away incessantly. Is the next Crimes and Misdemeanors being generated in there? Or just one more Curse of the Jade Scorpion?

That’s another hot topic Allen humbly swats away: his staggering productiveness, which has yielded more than 40 films in as many years. True to form, he says his boundless tales naturally present themselves, and his knack for filling in narrative holes is simply a matter of genetics.

“It’s not as grueling as you think,” he says of his annual output. “In the course of a year, you make a film and things happen. You read the newspaper, you live your life. And it occurs to you that there are many potentially interesting stories. I read stories about other people, and I usually make notes on scraps of paper. Other times I’ll think of a full story spontaneously. If I don’t have anything, I’m good at forcing the issue, because I used to be a television writer years ago, and you had to have a show ready to go into rehearsal within days. You couldn’t wait for your so-called muse to visit you. So I can do that. I can sit and think and drum up something. I can’t do anything else, but I can do that. It’s just an accident of birth—that I can come up with stories.”

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Rapes, Requiems, & Wreckers: Jean Rollin’s Cinema

Like a proper Shakespearean tragedy, the first part of The Rape of the Vampire ends with the bulk of its dramatis personae recently deceased. Wither, then, the sequel?

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Rapes, Requiems, & Wreckers: Jean Rollin’s Cinema
Photo: La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

Earlier this year, Redemption Films, in conjunction with Kino Lorber, released a five-title slate of Jean Rollin films on Blu-ray for the first time ever. The latest batch, three films from Rollin’s early period (1968-1974), showcases the inimitable eroto-surrealist’s more experimental side, whether mashing together disparate styles and tones (The Rape of the Vampire), venturing toward nearly silent cinema (the first 40 minutes of Requiem for a Vampire are nearly wordless), or sliding into fractured fairytale mode (The Demoniacs plays like a Breton folktale scripted by Joris-Karl Huysmans). In my previous dispatch on Rollin’s films, I emphasized the need for acclimatization, taking the time to get into synch with his sensibilities, in order to fully savor the atmosphere of desire and doom that Rollin (spiritual heir to fin-de-siècle decadent writers like Huysmans) cultivated with such alacrity. That holds in spades for these new films. While, by and large, they’re a bit patchier—and occasionally more off-putting—than previous titles, there are riches enough on display here to amply reward the adventurous and attentive viewer.

Rollin’s first feature film, The Rape of the Vampire, was originally commissioned as a half-hour short by American producer Sam Selsky to round out a double bill alongside a French-dubbed version of 1943’s Dead Men Walk. When Selsky got a gander at what Rollin could do on a next-to-nothing budget, he gave the go-ahead to expand the short to feature length, figuring it would end up costing “twice nothing,” which partially explains Rape of the Vampire’s subtitle: A Melodrama in Two Parts. Atypically for Rollin, who tended to favor sepulchral hues and garish gel lighting, Rape of the Vampire is filmed in stark black and white, and features a number of stylistic flourishes—upside-down shots, exceedingly canted Dutch angles, a stunning 360-degree pan that rivals the vertiginous prom dance in Brian De Palma’s Carrie—that Rollin would rarely indulge in later films.

Part one follows Parisian psychiatrist Thomas (Bernard Letrou) and his companions, Brigitte (Solange Pradel) and Marc (Marquis Polho), on a doomed quest to free a quartet of “vampire sisters” from what they take to be their illusory condition. The big city sophistos consider vampirism as nothing more than a mental illness forced upon the sisters by the superstitious persecution of local villagers, a neat inversion of the usual vampire lore closer in spirit to George A. Romero’s excellent, under-sung Martin. Exempla gratis: The girls worship before a horned fertility idol, revealed to be the mouthpiece of the lord of the manor (Doc Moyle), a stock villain from Central Casting down to his Snidely Whiplash ’stache and nefarious agenda. After much gratuitous disrobing (a Selsky suggestion Rollin made his own through strange juxtapositions of bared flesh and moldering environs) and running hither and yon, the inversion is itself inverted when it transpires that the sisters are indeed vampires after all, and all hell breaks loose—or, anyhow, as much as Rollin could afford (witness the pitifully sparse pack of angry, torch-bearing villagers, including poster artist Philippe Druillet and Rollin himself).

Like a proper Shakespearean tragedy, the first part ends with the bulk of its dramatis personae recently deceased. Wither, then, the sequel? Taking his cue from a childhood love of Louis Feuillade serials like—what else?—Les Vampires, Rollin simply resurrects them as need be, introducing as the second half’s focal point a mod Queen of the Vampires (Jacqueline Sieger), and injects another pseudo-scientific quest for a cure, a motif prominent again in The Nude Vampire. The first part of Rape of the Vampire may be stronger on genre ambience, coming on like the illegitimate lovechild of Carnival of Souls and one of Hammer’s Dracula films, but the second ventures into artier, overtly theatrical terrain. (The strident, atonal free jazz score by Yves Géraud and François Tusques serves as ideal accompaniment.) Nevertheless, the latter part contains plenty of striking imagery, such as a pointedly anachronistic funeral procession, including horse-drawn hearse, presided over by a fanged priest holding aloft an inverted crucifix. The “blood wedding” finale, reportedly filmed onstage at the legendary Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, deconstructs the entire film as a particularly flamboyant piece of op art, as well as providing (with its riotous disruption mid-performance) the perfect correlative for the protests of May ’68 then raging through the streets of Paris, especially in the Latin Quarter where Rape of the Vampire had its premiere, a concatenation of events that contributed in no small measure to the film’s succès de scandale.

Rollin claimed to have written the treatment for Requiem for a Vampire in one impromptu burst, stacking incidents on top of each other with little care for plausibility, or any other connective tissue for that matter. In fact, the nucleic image—a woman (Louise Dhour) playing the piano in the middle of a cemetery—occurs late in the film, so you’re free to imagine the process of concocting Requiem for a Vampire’s storyline as a playful variation on one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. (Rollin himself emphasized the story’s childlike qualities.) The film kicks off with a blast, thrusting the viewer smack in the middle of one of the oddest car chases ever filmed: The fleeing car has two women (Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent) got up in full clown makeup and attire crouched in the back seat, trading potshots with the pursuing vehicle. The chase concludes with their driver dead, so the duo put the torch to both body and car. We never learn who these women are, nor why they’re being chased, and, quite frankly, given Rollin’s unceasingly oneiric flow of imagery, we never have cause to bother much about it.

After this whizz-bang opening, Rollin brings the pace down to a simmer. The pair shed their harlequin makeup (shown, in one bravura shot, with a close-up on a puddle of water as it’s clouded by colors), and trek across the crepuscular countryside, the camera following their pilgrims’ progress in leisurely pans, before taking shelter in a typically Rollinian terminus: the local cemetery. (If any topological tropes can be said to haunt Rollin’s films, they would have to be a particular stretch of beach near Dieppe wedged between sheer rock outcroppings and seaweed-spattered mooring posts, and the wrought-iron precincts of a rural graveyard.) After one of them is almost buried alive, the twosome pick their way through a dark forest straight out of Dante, until a fateful encounter with a couple of vampire bats ushers them into a seemingly abandoned gothic castle.

Requiem for a Vampire’s middle parts are taken up with some light lesbianism (bedding down, the girls writhe around in the buff for a bit), nocturnal perambulations about the fortress (stumbling into a skeleton-staffed chapel), sightings of a semi-vampire (Dominique, the actress who memorably emerged from a grandfather clock in Rollin’s earlier Shiver of the Vampire), as well as a protracted, scarlet-hued rape/torture perpetrated by the vampire’s henchmen (another Selsky special). Only latterly does something resembling a plot emerge: In order to be initiated into the vampiric order, the girls must lure unsuspecting victims into the castle, using only their feminine wiles. This allows for more T&A (a striptease atop the battlements, a tryst among the ruins), capped by the film’s most controversial scene: Dargent sadistically whipping a naked Castel in order to discover whether she’s slept with her prospective victim. Requiem for a Vampire earns its title with the aforementioned cemetery serenade: The last of the vampires chooses an eternity of imprisonment in his tomb, rather than continue the line by infecting the women, a direct echo of Rape of the Vampire’s final moments, wherein the vampire lovers brick themselves up in their lair. One of the key components in Rollin’s macabre poetry, evidently, is to be more than half in love with easeful death.

“At the end of the last century on the north European coasts, lived men who feared neither God nor the law. They lured ships toward the rocks where they were smashed to pieces. These men then plundered the wrecks. They were called wreckers.” Rollin’s most uncharacteristic early film, The Demoniacs again evinces his love for serial cinema with its unusual opening montage: a series of vignettes that introduce the main characters (seen in cameo over images of a smoldering shipwreck) while a narrator describes their vilest attributes in florid detail. In his liner notes to the set, Tim Lucas astutely limns the film’s generic debt to Fritz Lang’s swashbuckler Moonfleet, another of Rollin’s favorites. Differences in narrative development and tone are also illustrative: Given its cast of characters’ uniformly unrepentant evil, and a cataclysmically bleak ending, The Demoniacs is one of Rollin’s most ferocious, even brutal films.

Studio-ensconced for the first time in his career, Rollin made the best of a bad situation by dressing his sole set in baroque fashion, resulting in a mariner’s tavern as designed by Man Ray, as well as relieving the resultant claustrophobia by frequent excursions either to the beach (complete with blazing wreckage to clamber around on) or the ruined chapel that provides many of the film’s most impressive visuals. Stark as a murder ballad in incident, The Demoniacs concerns themes of guilt and revenge that (as Lucas also notes) are rare stocks-in-trade for Rollin. The wreckers’ two young victims (played by unknowns, since the Castel twins were evidently unavailable) make a pact with the devil (Miletic Zivomir) to gain his power and obtain their revenge. Along the way, Mirelle Dargent turns up in full clown costume. Driven mad by guilt, the captain (John Rico) turns on his fellow wreckers.

And then there’s the volcanic Joëlle Coeur as Tina the wrecker. Her uninhibited, force-of-nature performance is worth the price of admission alone. Turned on to the point of frenzy by the sight of cruelty and blood, Tina goads on the other wreckers to rape and murder. In one remarkable scene, she sets about pleasuring herself along the rocky coast, throwing her body around the jagged strand with wild abandon, while the captain and his cronies partake in their vicious pastime. Equally remarkable, in their own way, are the film’s final images, as the sea closes silently around the carnage, bringing with it a placid serenity as imperturbable and illimitable as the tomb’s.

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Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Jean Rollin

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.

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Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Jean Rollin
Photo: La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

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.

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