Buxom, Lustful and Thirsty for Blood
Brigitte Lahaie, covered up for the moment, in Jean Rollin’s “Fascination.”
The movies have their outsider artists too, filmmakers who work away from the established centers and financial structures, often laboring in blissful ignorance of academic technique. A disproportionate number of these directors work in horror films, for reasons that probably have to do with the genre’s openness to obsession and high tolerance for the incoherent. Most famous, there is Edward D. Wood Jr., whose endearing ineptitude in films like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” can run thin after a while. There are also genuine poets like Herk Harvey, the Midwestern maker of industrial and educational shorts who poured his heart and personal savings into his one feature-length film, the eerie and elusive “Carnival of Souls” (1962).
Another such figure was Jean Rollin (1938-2010), a French filmmaker who, like Harvey, came from a background in industrial documentaries. But Rollin was a double outsider, a filmmaker drawn to the fantastique in a country that had a limited tradition of genre filmmaking as well as a proud tradition of Cartesian rationalism that discouraged explorations of the supernatural. What France did offer, however, was a thriving interest in eroticism, and when Rollin was finally able to make his first feature, “The Rape of the Vampire” (1968), he did so by combining his childhood fascination with American cliffhanger serials and early-20th-century French fantasists like Gaston Leroux (author of “The Phantom of the Opera”) with gauzy nudes and exotic couplings. Although duly massacred by the critics, the film did well enough to attract investors and set Rollin on his peculiar path.
That path eventually included some 20 feature films signed with his own name, and about 30 other pseudonymous works of a purely pornographic (and, it is said, purely impersonal) character. Much of Rollin’s library was acquired by the British firm Redemption, which has been doling out titles on DVD for his expanding cult following. Now the company is collaborating with Kino International to release handsomely remastered Blu-rays, taken from the original camera negatives, of five key Rollin titles: “The Nude Vampire” (1970), “The Shiver of the Vampires” (1971), “The Iron Rose” (1973), “Lips of Blood” (1975) and “Fascination” (1979).
That Rollin understood his cinema as essentially private and apart is suggested by a sequence in the self-referential “Lips of Blood,” in which the hero is lured into a movie theater advertising “The Nude Vampire” (with a wonderful ’70s Art Nouveau poster by the comic book artist Philippe Druillet). But the film on the screen inside is “The Shiver of the Vampires,” playing to an audience of exactly two men who keep their eyes fixed firmly on the screen even as an exit door opens to reveal the beckoning figure of a semi-clad female vampire. Not only did Rollin imagine his public as tiny but in a trance, so mesmerized by the slow rhythms and repetitious imagery of his work that even a flesh-and-blood monster can’t distract their attention.
More than a considered style and set of themes, Rollin’s work projects a compelling pathology, at once obvious (masochistic fantasies of childlike men smothered by sexually empowered women) and hopelessly obscure (a desolate stretch of the Normandy coast, Pourville-lès-Dieppe, somehow connected to Rollin’s own childhood, appears with almost comic regularity). He has a remarkable feeling for gloomy, isolated locations: abandoned cemeteries, bricked-up apartment blocks, crumbling châteaux situated in provincial obscurity. He likes his women full-bodied (unfashionable in the 1970s); dressed in diaphanous, pastel-colored nightgowns; and preferably in pairs: lesbian vampire lovers (“Shiver of the Vampires”), topless twin sister house servants (“The Nude Vampire”), elegant bourgeois ladies bound in a blood cult (“Fascination”).
With its relatively accomplished acting, superior cinematography and fleshed-out story line, “Fascination” is often recommended as the Rollin to see if you are seeing only one. Brigitte Lahaie, a star of French pornographic movies, appears with the future novelist Franca Maï as a pair of debauched chatelaines who lure a thief on the run (Jean-Marie Lemaire) into their clutches, occasioning at least one unforgettable image: Ms. Lahaie, naked beneath an open black robe, cutting down victims with a gigantic scythe — the Grim Reaper as imagined by Bob Guccione.
But if “Fascination” represents Rollin’s most successful attempt to make a “normal” movie, his personality emerges more strongly in a less polished work like “The Shiver of the Vampires,” a cascade of delirious imagery tied to a story line so convoluted that even Rollin seems to lose track of it. A pair of newlyweds (still wearing their wedding clothes) arrive at the crumbling château owned by the bride’s eccentric cousins, a pair of vampire hunters who have themselves become vampires. Rollin’s compulsive doubling moves into tripling as the bloodsucker in residence, Isolde (played by an actress with a single name, Dominique) goes after both the bride, Ise (Sandra Julien) and a local woman, Isabelle (Nicole Nancel), who was involved in a ménage à trois with the two undead cousins.
The doddering symmetry of the plotline finds its visual equivalent in a couple of laboriously executed 360-degree pans — showy, difficult shots that represent one of Rollin’s rare attempts to be cinematic. In the context of his usual offhanded compositions and wayward framing, the formal self-consciousness of these circular shots is startling — as if Jean-Luc Godard had suddenly taken over an episode of the “Real Housewives” franchise.
Moments like these — and there are a few others scattered through Rollin’s oeuvre — remind us of the close kinship of outsider art and the avant-garde. It is, after all, difficult to distinguish between rules broken out of innocence and rules broken with study and deliberation. With its outsize female characters struggling obscurely on a magical plane, “The Shiver of the Vampires” made me think more than once of Jacques Rivette’s mid-’70s series of feminist fantasy films: “Céline and Julie Go Boating,” “Noroît,” “Duelle.” (The impression is reinforced by the presence of Michel Delahaye and Jacques Robiolles as the vampire cousins. Both made regular appearance in New Wave films, and Delahaye contributed as a critic to the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma.)
With slightly higher budgets, a little more formal assurance and a much better press agent, Jean Rollin might have taken his place in the pantheon of French cinéastes. But then we would not have had these odd, awkward, strangely touching films, and I think I would miss them. (Kino International, Blu-ray $29.95 each, DVD $24.95 each, not rated except for “Shiver of the Vampires,” which is R).