Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Jean Rollin

(1938 – 2010)

Behind the scenes on Le frisson des vampires, 1971:

The French film director Jean Rollin, who passed-away on December 15th at the age of 72, was more than just a director of "erotic vampire-fiction"; to many, he was one of most remarkable image-makers in the history of film. Though the titles of his work - with their allusions to violence, fear, death and sexuality - might suggest images of a kind of sleazy, excessive 'grindhouse' cinema, as typified by a film like The Last House on the Left (1972), the general tone of Rollin's work was often far more contemplative, elegiac and surreal. His work - explorations of the fantastique, if anything - present the viewer with a unique, hermetic, fully realised universe, full of codes and symbols that appear and reappear, as if every film offers the spectator a new piece of a vast and never-ending puzzle.

This notion of a grand, unravelling mystery, linked by characters, themes and locations, was of course one of the most interesting facets of Rollin's work; a sense of each film becoming a continuation of a reoccurring dream that the audience can only attempt to grasp or comprehend, but that lingers long in the mind of a collective audience through the sheer, imaginative, transportive power of the pictures on-screen.

Rollin's films are defined by frame after frame of these extraordinary compositions; where each shot, each framed moment or movement manages to conjure the spirit of something powerful enough to reach beyond the mere conventions of narrative or plot; where the images suggest a story, and the reappearance of certain objects or actors or narrative facilitators create a traceable line that runs back-and-forth throughout the director's career.

In Rollin's work, the countryside, the city, the beach, châteaux, cemeteries and the psychiatric hospital hold clues to this endless conundrum; the greater story that exists and develops from one picture to the next. His characters, often gorgeous young women who stumble, Alice-like, into these picturesque, sometimes gothic, sometimes exotic landscapes full of magic and mystery, encounter strange rituals, acts, ceremonies and occurrences that, on some very basic level, work as metaphorical presentations of the art of 'the fantastique'

Here we can see the similarities to other filmmakers of Rollin's generation, who dabbled with the near-supernatural forces of this ancient form of storytelling, albeit, without ever fully surrendering to it. Like the work of Jacques Rivette for example, there is the shared sense of the city as an infernal labyrinth; an endless maze of inter-connected backstreets and alleyways that lead his characters between mysteries and events. His 'vampires', named as much in reference to Feuillade as to Bram Stoker, are enigmatic, decadent and often withdrawn. Like the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Rollin's work is full of erotic displays, fantasies, dreams and desires, but is also intelligent, creative, poetic and unique.

The image of the beach, consistent throughout Rollin's career, has been the location for some of his most extraordinary moments. From the youthful explorations of Les amours jaunes (1958) to the evocative visions of his masterpiece The Iron Rose (La Rose de Fer, 1972), this beach, recognisable to anyone who has seen more than one of the director's incredible films, presents an ideal; a vision of somewhere beyond the here and now, or representative even of some emotional or psychological state.

If the form of his work seems, from the surface at least, to be nothing more than pure exploitation, the power of his images, the command of his stories and the experiences of these particular characters nonetheless define Jean Rollin, not just as a legitimate auteur, but as one of the most fascinating French filmmakers of his generation. Even his pornographic movies, produced under a variety of obvious pseudonyms and often made for purely financial reasons, are filled with his usual arcane symbols, masks, role-playing games, and an eye for the unconventional.

The recurring scenarios, of escapees, corruptible innocents and seductive forces weave in and out of these stories, creating a system of figurative strings that lead the audience from his earliest short-features, right the way through to his most recent picture. In this sense, Rollin's cinema is every bit as individual, personal and identifiable as that of Godard's or Garrel's. In these films, Jean Rollin transformed the lurid or the sordid into something beyond words; an elegy for something; innocence perhaps, or a certain kind of dream-state that can only be presented through the smoke and mirrors magic-act of the cinema itself.

All images taken from Jeremy Richey's superior Rollin resource Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience: