Saturday, September 26, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 14: Death By Brain Damage

In researching French horror films, I’d come to the sad, sad realization that about 25% of it was directed or influenced by Jean Rollin. I read a review with Rollin in Penny Blood Magazine, which was either conducted by someone too taken with the director to question him or had no idea who he was. Rollin, for his part, has almost nothing to say about his work; he talks about his films, which took up more than 30 years of his life, with all the gravity of a man recalling the names of goldfish he owned as a child. Here’s a sample of the kind of affection he shows on his body of work:

PENNY BLOOD: 1958’s Les Amour Jaunes was your first film?
ROLLIN: Yes, it’s a short film.
PENNY BLOOD: One of your experimental films?
PENNY BLOOD: So, you made a number of these short films before your first feature, Le Viol Du Vampire, or The Rape of the Vampire, in 1967?
ROLLIN: Yes. That was my first long form film.

Granted, out of context, but I swear to christ the whole thing's like that. After Rape of the Vampire, he dove headfirst into his new niche, the lesbian vampire film, with three new takes on the subject, Shiver of the Vampire, The Nude Vampire and Requiem for a Vampire, each more confusing and full of naked women than the last. I'd review them, but I can only bang my head against a wall for so long before it bleeds. His first film outside his beloved creation is easily his most interesting, but you can’t really call it any better or worse than The Living Dead Girl or Grapes of Death, it just seems to predicated upon an idea rather than a stack of genre conventions; In the interview, Rollin admits that Grapes of Death, Zombie Lake and Living Dead Girl were made for no greater reason than zombie films were making money at the time. In fact, of Rollin’s films, these two are the only ones that I’ve seen that have (in minor ways) transcended the man’s apparent inability (or unwillingness) to direct.

The Iron Rose
by Jean Rollin
Open on the same beach where most of Rape of the Vampire transpires. A woman in red picks up an Iron Rose from the surf and examines it lovingly before throwing it back. Then she walks on a beach, then she walks through a misty field, then two people make out on the front of an old train for most of the opening credits. We then cut to a wedding where a moody kid, who looks a bit much like Jack Taylor for my liking, recites a dark bit of poetry as entertainment, which everybody applauds. A bit later he asks the lady in red, who we learn is a ballerina, to go on a Sunday bike ride with him. This bit of flirting that they do and the wedding that comes just before, for the record, are the only bits of acting I’ve ever seen in a Jean Rollin film. So either he was off having a smoke and the 2nd unit handled this scene or it’s possible that Françoise Pascal and Hugues Quester were simply tremendous actors. Either way nothing in the entirety of Rollin’s canon approaches the realism of these scenes. The flirting isn’t even that good, but that’s how wretched Jean Rollin is at directing people; further evidence can be found in the rest of the film.

The boy and the girl (who never get names) go for a picnic in a cemetery. The boy insists on doing a bit of roaming around even though his date seems scared. He’s so enchanted by the notion of fucking around in a cemetery that they climb into a crypt and actually have sex (which, from what we see, consists of kissing topless and moaning a good deal) while people (including a clown) lay flowers on nearby graves. After their tryst she insists they leave; “I’m Knackered!” she yawns. I wonder if the subtitlers were British? They discover that the path they walked in on has disappeared and so our lovers will spend the rest of the film trying to find their way out of the cemetery, getting alternately angry and hysterical. He beats her and tears her clothing, she starts spouting cryptic nonsense, he gets locked in tomb, she gets finds an iron rose, gets naked and joins him in the tomb…the end.

There are subtle differences that make this a different film from Demoniacs or Living Dead Girl. There appears to be a Night of the Living Dead influence leering over things, what with the cemetery setting and all that, and the belief that people are more evil alive than dead. The shoddiness of the film is less evident, but it’s still there; for once when a bit of scenery falls down, it feels like it may have been planned that way; usually things fall over and Rollin insists that everyone ignore it and keep going with the scene. Pascal’s dialogue late in the film is pretty absurd: she finds the iron rose in the cemetery and says “A Rose of Crystal!”. This could be an error in the proofreading, but the thing is black as night, how could you possibly mistake it for crystal. She deadpans lines like “Aloes live for 50 years and blossom only once” and “November 1st. The world of the living meets the world of the dead” as she yawns and stretches and slows the film to a crawl. The latter line scares the bejesus out of the boy for whatever reason as he runs in terror as soon as she’s done saying it. The film quickly gets bogged down in bullshit, as Pascal foregoes developing her thoughts any further at around the end of the second act by dancing naked on a beach and repeating every line of dialogue she’s had since night fell. The last thing she does is perform an impromptu ballet through the cemetery (cause she’s a ballerina? I don’t understand this). Rollin basically distracts us from the emptiness of the preceding 70 minutes by rewarding the audience with the scenes of a very naked Pascal. Though I can think of a number of people whom this would appease, I am not one of them. As she lowers her head into a grave, she intones “We alive…you dead”; that’s the overarching philosophy. Learn it well, skip the film.

Clearly The Iron Rose was doomed from the start because it isn’t about anything. If he had invested any effort into the screenplay, which amounts to little more than two people getting lost and hysterical, it may have been a lot of things: frightening, profound, erotic, atmospheric or interesting. It’s none of those things, nor for that matter is another of his rootless efforts, Night of the Hunted.

Night of the Hunted
by Jean Rollin
A man drives through a wooded area at night and happens upon a blonde woman in tattered clothes in the middle of the road as a naked redhead looks on. He takes the blonde home and they have sex in real time for like fifteen minutes. He leaves to go to work and when he returns, she’s gone. He traces her to a black skyscraper in the downtown area of wherever the hell this is after she calls him from a payphone, but not before we see what’s going on in the black tower. The skyscraper is guarded by an organization keeping a bunch of lunatics locked up, away from society’s judgmental gaze. Why? Let’s let the director explain: 
“It takes place in a very near future. There has been an accident with a bomb, a nuclear catastrophe. The film is about the breakdown of society when this kind of catastrophe happens. In some versions of the film, there is a scene where a projection of a news video is on screen that explains this.” 
Fantastic. Needless to say, that's not the version I saw. That, incidentally, is all he says about the film. I find this troubling for a few reasons, not the least of which because it mirrors Umberto Lenzi’s repugnant defense of his Nightmare City. If there was an accident with a bomb, why does no one know about it? Why aren’t these people put in clinics. It makes no sense, nor for that matter does allotting twenty five minutes to people shambling about like zombies (but crucially they're not actually zombies) in someone’s hallway.

I could think of nothing quite so extraordinarily lame as filming people acting like their brains have been stolen in a hotel hallway they were able to secure for a single night’s shooting. Anyway, the man shows up looking for the girl he’s slept with and gets treated to a lot of vague answers from the staff, but not before one of the officials has a ballroom dance with him out by a fountain to some Goblin-esque carnival music. I wish I were kidding. So the girl escapes but gets captured again and gets put on a train headed for another tower; she escapes once more and finds her boyfriend. Before they get too far one of the doctor’s shoots him in the head, but it doesn’t kill him. The film’s ending: him shot in the head, her braindead from radiation poisoning, shambling off together…it’s almost poignant. It’s also the film’s only redeeming feature. The rest is a mess, pure and simple, made all the worse by the directors aborted decisions regarding it’s tone. Night shifts from gripping drama to nearly hard-core sex to absurdist fever dream to neutered societal lambasting and finally to thoroughly under-exciting action film and each of these is underplayed (I’d have loved to have read the shooting script if there was one). I would have thought Rollin had some defense for his roving fusion of empty style and non-profundity but he apparently has nothing to add; so either the film is perfect or not worth the breath it would take to explain it. In the absense of any kind of guidance, and having only the completed film to judge, I’m goin’ with the latter. Take it as a sign that the film is really poorly dubbed into French, yet the actors are all French. That should tell you everything you need to know about the care and precision that went into making it. I could offer a critical reading of Night of the Hunted, but Rollin doesn’t care so why should I?
I watched these two movies with the belief that I would find something to like in the director’s inexplicably vast canon; I didn’t, so now you have to hear my dissapointment. Allow me to illstrate the man’s greatest failing by sharing my favorite line of Night of the Hunted. The lead girl on the doctor in charge of the black tower: He cures my body but empties my head. And that is truly the ethos of everyone of Rollin’s films: nice women to stare at, nothing but the dumbest bullshit coming out of everyone’s mouths. The fundamental problem with all of his movies is that they behave like art films but there is nothing artistic about them. He made films because that was how he made his money; he’s no different than Roger Corman or Al Adamson or Joe D’Amato or anyone else who rather conspicuously took part in the factory filmmaking system. If there’s a lesson to be learned here in examining his films it’s that there are real people out there trying to make films with ambition and smartly crafted scripts and expert direction who never get discovered and that far too much money is being spent on celebrating the meaningless exploitation of women. If I had my way, films of this character, cheap manipulative treks through the effects of supply and demand on the output of artists would be taken from circulation, at least until all the proper films got their day in the sun. Jean Rollin was no artist, and there are far too many of his movies being treated as the works of a misunderstood genius. Anyone who’s idea of pre-production is finding a blonde willing to take her top off should be banned from making films. I’d forgive him if his movies amounted to anything more than nude women, great big pieces of scenery and meaningless dialogue, but I don’t feel much like forgiveness.

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