Home Video Hovel- The Cinema of Jean Rollin
Kino Lorber’s new cult/horror imprint Redemption Films has chosen to announce itself with the release of five newly remastered films by French director Jean Rollin. These films were made from 1969-1979 but were not widely seen in America until cheap VHS copies began to circulate in the 1990’s, followed by cheap DVD’s in the years after. That means these new Blu-rays are likely the best versions of the films to have been available here but this is true not only by default. These are lovely to look at and a wonderful showcase for Rollin’s penchant for ambitious location shooting and lush palettes.
Of course, those aren’t the only trademarks of Rollin’s work. His fixation on the naked female form runs the gamut from celebratory to leering to lecherous to practically pornographic. There is such an abundance of female nudity, from the ethereal to the sensual, that it begins to hardly even register (at least once you’ve watched five films). Yet it would be wrong to accuse him of only being exploitative. His films are actually an arena in which he plays out his conflicting feelings about women. They are often figures of great power, resourcefulness, independence and righteousness. On the other hand, they can also be dishonest, manipulative, irrational and frail of mind and body. Rollin’s ambivalence is not limited to women, either. Over the course of these five films, the same pattern emerges on other subjects, most notably both the bourgeois class and the bohemian counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s.
I’ll take the films one by one.
1969’s The Nude Vampire smacks of “early effort.” Its ambitions outpace both its budget and the director’s skill level in the way of thousands and thousands of film student shorts. Still, it retains in most scenes a goofy sort of midnight movie/arthouse hybrid fun. It tells the story of a young man named Pierre who discovers that his wealthy father, Georges, has opened his townhouse to a cult that worships and sacrifices themselves to a young woman named Solange who may or may not be a rare vampire. When Pierre learns that Georges and his rich cohorts have more nefarious plans for the woman, he attempts to rescue her. The older men abscond with her to a chateau and find themselves besieged by another cult, this one possibly made up of vampires themselves. Pierre finds himself caught between the two sides.
Though full of surrealist imagery (particularly in the form of costuming), this is probably the simplest of the films thematically. The younger characters and those who are outsiders are generally good and the older representatives of wealth and establishment are generally bad. Pierre, his father and the leader of the later cult are all men. The women who speak are evil while the good women are demure and largely silent. This film is more interesting visually than textually. The flowing fabrics in pastels and other bright, rich hues are a taste of what’s to come, while the chateau is a commanding location. The Nude Vampire is not the worst of these films but it is the least assured, despite being undeniably representative of Rollin, up to and including the wholly gratuitous and wordless scene in which a naked woman dances around an apartment for about five minutes, fondling herself the whole time.
The Shiver of the Vampires
Made a mere two years later, The Shiver of the Vampires is a much more accomplished film but still loose and fun in a way Rollin will regrettably lose sight of. A pair of newlyweds (Isla and Antoine) plan to honeymoon at the chateau of the bride’s cousins (there’s a chateau in most of these movies). When they arrive, they are told that the cousins have both died only days before. After only 24 hours (including a night in which a woman appears to Isla and seduces her), they discover that the cousins – both men whose names we never learn – are not dead. They have merely developed the odd habit of sleeping during the day. They don’t appear to eat much food, either. Things become more complex when we realize Isla’s seducer is responsible for the changes in the men and she may have similar plans for Isla. Adding to the fun, all this unfolds atop a trotting electric guitar score that is surprisingly peppy.
Slight improvements in depth are apparent here. The older, wealthier cousins turning from bourgeois to freaks could be a subtle commentary on the co-opting of hippie culture by the mainstream. The alternatively alluring and frightening woman suggests that even the bohemians have their own authority figures and hierarchies. The most interesting development, slight though it may be, comes in the gender dynamics of Isla and Antoine. He is the ostensible “hero” of the piece in that he is the most resistant to the dark ways of these strange people. Intriguingly, though, his virtue is essentially ineffectual. The temptations and the will of the tempted are what set the rules.
We also see a maturation of Rollin’s visual style. The compositions are less outlandish but more powerful for how deeply considered they are. Still, the most important takeaway is the director’s willingness to celebrate those who flout the status quo while still warning of their dangers.
The Iron Rose begins where most of these films end: a foreboding and rocky beach in the shadow of towering cliffs with rotted piers that disappear into a cold, churning sea. Rollin returns to this Normandy location again and again. It’s plain to see why. Yet its use in this film is different, more enigmatic. We see a woman walking on the beach, caressing the titular garden ornament before casting it into the waves. Only then does the story start, in a completely different time and place. It remains unclear whether the beach setting actually exists in this world and timeline or if it’s some sort of limbo.
The story proper is the simplest of the group and perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is the best film in the collection. A young man and woman go on a date and decide impulsively to picnic in a massive, lush, labyrinthine cemetery. Being young and lustful, they climb into a vault to screw and find, when they at last emerge, that the sun has set. Though they walk and walk, they are unable to find the graveyard’s exit. Perhaps it’s simply too dark and the place is too big. But it begins to seem as if some force is keeping them there. While the man’s free-spirited nature begins to crack as he becomes petty and selfish in his fear, the woman undergoes a much more disturbing and less easily explained change.
Though Rollin reliably finds a couple of excuses to show you his leading lady’s breasts, this is still a much more focused and moody, less sensationalistic film than the previous two. Those films may have had flashes of violence and some weird and disturbing imagery but there is a masterful sense of creeping dread here. As in Shiver, the woman holds the most power but it is less easy to decide how we feel about it. As the man becomes increasingly brutish toward her, she gains our sympathies. Yet there is a shift in the balance just past the film’s halfway point. Suddenly, no matter how crude the man has been, we fear for him in the face of her unhinged, irrational behavior. The question Rollin leaves for us to ponder is whether her change in behavior is justified. To what extent can a victim retaliate before becoming the victimizer? Of the five films, only The Iron Rose is so successful both at posing its question and at simply being a horror film.
Lips of Blood displays an unfortunate but common trait of the aging male filmmaker. The male protagonists get older while the women get younger. Watching and reviewing these films chronologically gives a clear impression that Rollin is past the peak of his career here but there is still much to like.
We begin with our lead, Frédéric, attending a cocktail party with his demanding mother. On one wall, he notices a large photograph of a chateau (again!) and suddenly he experiences a seemingly long-buried memory of having run away at the age of twelve and being taken in at the gates of that same chateau by a young girl. After spending the night there, he returned home and it was never spoken of again. At the mere sight of the photograph, he becomes driven to find that place and that girl again. When he finds out what she is, though, he must decide whether to join her or fight her.
One interesting aspect of this film is a slight change in the male-female relationship (which will continue in the next film). Whereas Antoine in Shiver and the man in The Iron Rose were unable to sway their female counterparts from the dark side, we are now taken one step further. Frédéric is actually tempted toward corruption himself. Some of the old themes remain, of course. The wealthy are still not to be trusted. Yet Rollin has apparently become too disillusioned with the counterculture youth and retreats even further to a younger perceived innocence. Still, there are plenty of beautiful settings, flowing costumes and vampires (Rollin himself appears as one of the latter’s victims). Oh and a woman masturbates on screen for no good reason I can think of.
Despite its unique place as the only period piece among the collection, Fascination is the least interesting of any of these films. By now, Rollin has swung fully to the other side of the gender dynamics pendulum from The Nude Vampire. Though the women in this film are still deadly and terrifying, they fully hold the power. The male lead is less what you would call a flawed character and more what you would call an asshole who deserves what’s coming to him. And the lesbian sex scene, though arguably important to the story, is essentially a pornographic diversion.
The film’s lead is a thief named Mark who hides out from a different group of thieves who want him dead by breaking into what seems to be an empty chateau (everybody do a shot!). Upon entering, though, he finds a couple of young women who first promise to hide him until dark and then begin to use every temptation they can muster to keep him in the house as late as possible. For reasons we don’t yet understand, they want him present at a party they’re hosting for a handful of other women.
There have been plenty of vampires and vampire-like beings in Rollin’s films and this one is no different. Beginning with one of the most breathtaking images in the collection – a group of women in Victorian garb standing in a viscera-splattered abattoir, drinking ox blood – we can piece together well before we are told what these women may have in mind for our lead character. However, in Fascination as in the other films, Rollin is never comfortable painting the vampires as evil. Certainly, they are figures of terror to many of the humans but, more often than not, we are clearly intended to sympathize with them.
So we return to the idea of ambivalence. Rollin’s unifying idea as an auteur may very well be his inclusive liberalism, his refusal to judge despite plainly possessing a discerning, analytical mind. One may dismiss such traits as simply being “very 1970’s” but he is persistent enough in his worldview and unique enough in his presentation of it that it is more accurately “very Rollin.” That and many, many naked women.