Anatomy of Melancholy

In praise of the films of Jean Rollin

The following piece on the films of Jean Rollin originally ran in the June, 2018 issue of Sight & Sound magazine, and is reprinted with the gracious permission of my editor, James Bell, who has for years allowed me to lower the tone at the BFI’s house organ. The pretext for the piece was the release of the Samm Deighan-edited volume Lost Girls – The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin and the UK Blu-ray releases of several Rollin films via Black House Films, though I’d had a hankering to write something about Rollin, a great personal favorite, for years. I don’t know if you can argue today that Rollin is a figure in need of rediscovery as one might have, say, fifteen years ago, but he exemplifies certain qualities that I admire in an artist: intuitive, resourceful, trend-oblivious, possessed of an ineffable “vibe,” and incapable of being anything other than themselves. On a side note, this piece was written in a friend’s spare room while licking my wounds from an unpleasant break-up and marathoning Rollin titles on my laptop, and it probably reads like that.

They are some of the loneliest movies that I know, the films of Jean Rollin—true outsider movies, both in their content and in the circumstances of their production. The man who made them was a lone wolf figure in his native France, a genre filmmaker in a country without a robust genre tradition to compare to that of, say, Italy or Great Britain. Critics at home were inclined to belittle him, even coining the term “Rollinade” as a sweeping dismissal of his output—a descriptor later taken up as a rallying cry by the filmmaker’s slow-growing-but-dedicated-to-the-death cult.

I knew none of this when I first encountered Rollin’s films as a teenager through a friend, one of the best and truest movie lovers I know, then as now worthy of the standing of high priest in the Church of Rollin, who I remember describing the films as “sad fairy tales.” The description fits. They are movies filled with wanderers, fugitives, men and women alone or in pairs looking for they-know-not-what: The couple sealed overnight in a seemingly city-sized cemetery in La Rose de Fer (1973), the harlequin girls fleeing a fatal shoot-out in Requiem pour un vampire (1971), the cocksure brigand-turned-lamb-to-the-slaughter protagonist of Fascination (1979), or Jean-Loup Philippe, in Lèvres de Sang (1975), pursuing a persistent childhood vision of a ruined castle and a mysterious woman in white. Along with the lost, often lonesome, always listlessly roaming figure, no image is more consistent in Rollin’s cinema than that of the slate-colored sea, a prospect to dwarf man, the Pourville-lès-Dieppe beach on the Normandy coast in particular, a treasured scene of his childhood that he again and again returns to survey.  

Rollin was most famously associated with the vampire movie thanks to a cycle of four pictures featuring his enormously idiosyncratic take on the lore of the bloodsucker that began with 1968’s Le Viol du vampire, though in years to come he dabbled in all manner of supernatural horrors. To call Rollin a horror director, however, is to land a bit wide of the mark, so little do his films rely on the engineering of classically constructed suspense sequences or jump scares. His work is often startling in its imagery—for example, a tall, narrow grandfather clock opening to reveal the slender actress Dominique within in Le Frissons des vampires (1970), which might very well have inspired the “casually appearing from the clock across the hall” line from John Cale’s “Paris 1919”—but this startlement is more a matter of transfixingly striking or simply uncanny imagery than the truly terrible. A film such as La Morte Vivante (1982; a/k/a The Living Dead Girl), in which a still-recently-deceased young woman (Françoise Blanchard) is awakened from the sleep of death by a toxic waste spill to find herself afflicted with a hunger for human blood, is as glutted with gore as any under the imprimatur of Lucio Fulci, but what lingers with one is the terrible sadness of it, the desperation of the resurrected woman’s best friend in life (Marina Pierro) to find fresh victims for her beloved companion, and so to keep her above ground for just one more day. The ugliness of the violence pales in the face of the film’s true source of terror, the fear of abandonment.

Rollin’s foremost aim is less to harrow than to entrance, seduce, even narcotize. His Le viol du vampire was released in the same year as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but these movies—each in their own way a radical break with the horror traditions that had come before—couldn’t have been more different in their tactics. Romero, a dab-handed editor with an inborn sense for compositional dynamism, was an athletic filmmaker, gifted at generating and escalating a sense of system-overload panic. Rollin, by contrast to Romero’s fearsome fire, has a lulling, liquid style. He had little of the Pittsburgher’s pure, pulsating film sense, but his intuitive and sometimes awkward films are suffused with an emotion born of conviction and desolate preoccupation. Even the occasional action set pieces in his films have a sort of draggy, hypnotic, one-beat-off quality—see for instance the pursuit across a nocturnal Paris in Lèvres de Sang—which indicate nothing of a bravura style that might impose itself on a viewer. But if you, dear viewer, should care to match your biorhythms to the singular hypnotic cadence at which Rollin’s films move…

Quite a few of Rollin’s films, Lèvres de Sang and La Morte Vivante among them, revolve around a hearkening back to the better days of bygone youth, and as such looking to the filmmaker’s own formative years may be instructive. He was born in 1938 to Denise Lefroi and Claude Martin, née Claude Rollin Roth Le Gentil, a stage actor. The marriage did not long outlast the happy event of Jean’s arrival, after which point Mme. Lefroi fell for a time into the arms of writer Georges Bataille who, in an almost ludicrously apt turn of events in the biography of an eventual director of disturbingly erotic films, is said to have read the future auteur his bedtime stories.

As his films could seem like unmoored, out-there objects anchored in no particular era, shaped by no influence save their author’s own obsessions, so too were Rollin’s tastes unusual for a man of his time, and even as a youth he seems to have been inclined to searching for things lost. From early on he was smitten with serialized cinema, a form that would have been already past its prime and on the way out in the years of his boyhood, and he would become a particular admirer of his countryman Louis Feuillade, director of Fantômas (1913-14) and Les Vampires (1915-16). Rollin repeatedly cited as among his favorite artists the relatively unknown Clovis Trouille, a Sunday painter who had been loosely affiliated with the Surrealist movement, who continued painting in much the same style—brightly colored canvases packed with horror iconography, bare derrieres, and blithe blasphemy—up until his death in 1975, like Rollin apparently impervious to all contemporary developments in his field. (The posters for Rollin’s own first three movies, designed by Philippe Druillet, represent a blissful marriage of throwback Art Nouveau and contemporary psychedelia, while his preference for placing stained glass-like hunks of bold color against dun, drab, and dusky backgrounds shows Trouille’s influence.)   

Rollin may seem a figure unstuck from time, but no artist has the luxury of truly being so. As we arrive at the fiftieth anniversary of Le viol du vampire, we come to the same birthday for what are colloquially referred to as the “Events of May, 1968,” during which time Rollin’s movie happened to be one of a handful playing in Parisian cinemas—a fact which the violence of audience reactions to the movie is often attributed to. Writing of Rollin in the New York Times in 2012, Dave Kehr contextualized him alongside his contemporaries, noting “the close kinship of outsider art and the avant-garde” before citing the overlap between the work of Rollin and Jacques Rivette—a figure who, in his own very different way, also continued the Feuillade tradition. In their reliance on the long shot and not-infrequent air of almost apocalyptic abjection, one might also find some affinity between Rollin’s early features and Phillippe Garrel’s dolorous, Symbolist-inflected post-’68 requiems. In point of fact, Rollin’s reconnection with early, “naïve” cinema was in keeping with a larger tendency of the period, as found in the work of figures as disparate as Andy Warhol and Maurice Pialat—but if there was a club for him to join, no invitation was forthcoming.   

Parisian film culture from the late 1960s to the early 80s might not have embraced Rollin’s films as a body, but the particulars of distribution and exhibition in that era allowed him to operate with relative freedom and even prolificity so long as he produced movies containing a sufficient amount of sex and violence to reliably turn a profit. This was no great task, for Rollin, the boy on Bataille’s knee, quite naturally inclined towards the subjects of Eros and Thanatos. Even his atypical works are entirely distinctive to him—in this number we may include the wave-lashed seaside rape-revenge yarn Les démoniaques (1974), his most overt homage to serial form, or Les Raisins de la Mort (1978), in which a grape blight unleashes a zombie epidemic which only France’s beer drinkers remain alive to combat. As with so many filmmakers working in the exploitation or “Eurosleaze” mold, however, Rollin would find it increasingly difficult to operate in the VCR era, and increasingly would be forced to turn a hand to for-hire hardcore work under the pseudonym “Robert Xavier,” with personal projects like Perdues dans New York (1989) and Les deux orphelines vampires (1997) coming fewer and further between.

Rollin was never exactly a forgotten figure—he was celebrated in his last North American appearance, at the 2007 edition of Montreal’s Fantasia Festival—but he remained a steadfastly solitary one. One mark of a great style is its inimitability, and Rollin had that in spades; when he died in December, 2010, at age seventy-two, he took with him to the grave the peculiar qualities of tone and atmosphere that seemed to originate with him as uniquely as might a thumbprint or a signature. Today he remains just slightly too obscure to command the name-recognition respect accorded to other branded genre directors—witness for example an insipid recent write-up in the Village Voice on the event of a screening of Rollin’s Fascination, which dismisses the film as “little more than softcore porn.”

The work of reclaiming Rollin is never done, but recent developments give cause for hope. Through the auspices of Black House Films, several of his key works are seeing new UK Blu-ray releases, and one can now put hands on a gorgeous, amply-illustrated volume edited by Samm Deighan, Lost Girls – The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin, courtesy of the Canadian publisher Spectacular Optical. Lost Girls isn’t the first book devoted to Rollin, but it is unique in the field in that it features contributions exclusively by female writers. Rollin is an entirely appropriate subject to such an approach, for the universe of his films, like that of Rivette’s, is an overwhelmingly feminine one. This serves their efficacy as “softcore” product, to be sure—the more women you have in the cast, the more heaving, rounded bosoms in diaphanous sherbet-colored gowns the movie can contain—but to look no further into the gender dynamic in Rollin’s films would be to ignore their plethora of potent and powerful women, and the quite unusual emphasis that they place on female friendship, sealed with sex or otherwise.

In a chapter on Rollin’s “Female Vampire As Romantic Liberator,” Deighan finds in Rollin’s cinema a counter-example to the classic Victorian gothic figures of virginal victim or snapping succubus, his films presenting the lady Nosferatu “as a figure of romance and sexual liberation, the physical incarnation of a symbolic freedom that surpassed even death,” offering an escape from what in Rollin’s films is the real nightmare—bourgeoise domesticity. The Rollin scholar will find a great deal else to chew on in Lost Girls, including a fine elucidation by Marcelline Block of the parallels between the work of cineaste maudit Rollin and one of the original poètes maudits, Tristan Corbière, whose 1873 collection of poetry Les Amours jaunes inspired Rollin’s 1958 short of the same name, his first. Deighan offers also a lengthy, rigorous chapter on “Female Intimacy in Jean Rollin’s Contes de Fées” which grounds my friend’s old “sad fairy tales” comment in scrupulous research.

Looking back I am sure what my friend and I were responding to in Rollin movies years ago was emotional rather than intellectual, something perhaps not so far from the morbid, melancholy, self-dramatizing quality in the music that we then shared a taste for, the drizzly, damp, goth-inflected stuff that seemed exceedingly well-suited to the post-industrial zones of southwestern Ohio. (My student films were heavily Rollin-indebted, and the fact that the 16mm reversal prints are now irretrievably disappeared is unquestionably a gutting loss for world cinema.) But these movies aren’t something to be outgrown any more than is sadness itself—and lo and behold, reviewing Rollin’s filmography through the bleakest winter in memory, there was that old, familiar pang.

Particularly potent and plangent on re-viewing was La nuit des traquées (a/k/a Night of the Hunted), released in 1980, on the cusp of the decade that would prove less-than-amenable to Rollin’s sort of filmmaking. It begins with a chance encounter between a young man and a woman fleeing from trouble, a scene not unfamiliar from his cinema—1970’s La Vampire nue opens in much the same way—but from there moves into chill, unfamiliar territory. The woman, who is discovered to be suffering from some form of amnesia, is played to devastating effect by adult film actress Brigitte Lahaie, who also gives lovely, open, wholly untutored performances in Les Raisins de la Mort and Fascination. (Rollin had a particular fondness for amateur performers, including those coming from the world of porno, who he never stigmatized.) She is in time recaptured by her pursuers, but rather than being squired to one of those half-ruined castle keeps of which Rollin is so fond, she’s quarantined in an antiseptic clinic in a high-rise tower alongside others who seem to be suffering from the same condition. The tender camaraderie between the inmates, united by their disorientation and suffering, is exceedingly touching, offset by the coldness of their antiseptic surroundings—exteriors were shot in the La Défense business district, burlesqued in Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), and the setting anticipates what Gianna d’Emilio in Lost Girls, discussing Rollin’s Les Trottoirs de Bangkok (1984) and Killing Car (1993), refers to Rollin’s “Serials in Soulless Cities” period.

The results of the compromised, fly-by-night production for ten-day wonder La nuit des traquées later rankled Rollin—he would write that it “contains the seed of a great film that was never actually realized”—but the spell of downbeat fatalism that it casts is not easily dispelled. In La Vampire nue, the family of vampires, revealed to represent something like a higher stage of human evolution, transcend and triumph over the conspiratorial alliance of money and science. In La nuit des traquées, no such salvation is in sight. But both films, as with the best of Rollin’s with, are triumphs of economy, emotion, and obsession against mighty odds, renegade movies following fugitive subjects, and proof positive that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a run-down, crumbling château.

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