The Cinema of Jean Rollin
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 17, 2012
The Cinema of Jean RollinThe Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampires, The Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, Fascination
Redemption Films, $19.95 each
In May 1968, France was undergoing its second revolution as university students, all manner of workers, and the vanguards of the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, etc.) organized a general strike to protest everything from President Charles de Gaulle's governance to student rights to creeping unemployment. It was against this chaotic backdrop that French director Jean Rollin released his first feature film, The Rape of the Vampire. That the film itself caused a public scandal even in the midst of those now-legendary Mai 68 riots remains a fittingly ironic testament to Rollin's subversively anachronistic style. While the Situationists covered every available surface with witty, forward-thinking graffiti, Rollin was just commencing a career notable for its preponderance of films set in an unnamed, distinctly romanticized French past.
If Rollin's frisson-filled oeuvre is unknown to you, don't blame Tim Lucas. His digest-sized magazine Video Watchdog: The Perfectionist's Guide to Fantastic Video has been the gold standard of genre film criticism for more than two decades, and it's where I first discovered the strikingly atmospheric work of Rollin, whose films simultaneously excited my teenage hormones and aroused my then-nascent suspicions that French filmmaking was utterly different than anything I had encountered before. True, the director's films often featured vampirism (mostly female, often nude), but they remain the enticing Gallic opposite of, say, Hammer studios' Dracula outings. Often working with ridiculously small budgets, Rollin used those financial limitations to his benefit, crafting a series of haunting, dreamlike films. Eros and Thanatos were not only coupled in Rollin's films, but also mated and bore bastard offspring often unaware of their own parentage: The gothic, steampunk, and blood fetishist un-pop subcultures owe much to Rollin's black velveteen eye and penchant for period costumes and the sensual removal thereof. Beautiful in their grotesqueries and set seemingly out of time in an abandoned, misty, and mystical France that includes recurring images of desolate beaches; cavernous, cadaverous mansions; and Paris' Père-Lachaise cemetery, the cinema of Rollin is quite unlike anything else. His directorial vision, albeit substantially, aesthetically different, could be compared to the equally strange – to newcomers, that is – auteurist work of outsider cinema's Jess Franco, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and in particular John D. Hancock's 1971 masterpiece Let's Scare Jessica To Death. But still, there's nothing and no one else out there that can match Rollin's rich, painterly compositions and unforgettable, stunningly poetic imagery.
Redemption Films/Kino Lorber have done an exemplary job releasing five of Rollin's films, including his first in color, The Nude Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), The Iron Rose (1973), Lips of Blood (1975), and his masterpiece, Fascination (1979). All five have been remastered in HD from the original 35mm negatives and look magnifique, with vibrant colors and breathtaking, vulpine imagery that hearkens back to no less than Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr and Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête. Similar to those two films, Rollin's more sexually unambiguous directorial style frequently moves at a stately, even somnambulistic pace. Viewers more attuned to the current Hollywood trend towards manic, ADHD-edited filmmaking are likely to find themselves initially bored but later plagued by uneasy dreams and sudden startlings. Which is perhaps exactly how Rollin, who passed away in 2010, would have liked it. The '68 Situationist cri de coeur, "Vivre sans temps mort" – literally, "Live without dead time" – still serves as a mirrored riposte to Rollin's own overarching auteurist lament: In his films, life is death time, and, oh, what a beautiful time it is.