Issue 10: Winter 2012
Editorial: Jean Rollin in Cork
Shiver of the Vampires (1971)
In July 2012, a weekend-long Jean Rollin retrospective took place in Experimental Conversations' home town, Cork, at the Triskel Christchurch cinema. A labour of love by Triskel programmer (and frequent contributor to this magazine) Chris O'Neill, this five-film programme was beautifully served by the venue, an 18th century church building with a suitably eerie crypt area on display beneath it. Even for those already familiar with the films selected from video or DVD screenings, the immersive experience of two days of Rollin projected in this setting was a memorable treat. And for those coming to Rollin for the first time, these five films were a superb introduction: three masterpieces (Demoniacs [Les Demoniaques, 1976], Shiver of the Vampires [Le Frisson de Vampires, 1971] and Rape of the Vampire [Le Viol du Vampire, 1968]) and and two flawed but often stunning movies featuring some of Rollin's best work, Fascination (1979) and The Naked Vampire (La Vampire Nue, 1969). This beautiful event, undoubtedly one of the highlights of Irish filmgoing this year, is part of a gradual but welcome upsurge in appreciation of a filmmaker still too often undervalued.
The most striking quality of Jean Rollin's filmmaking is its freedom. One of cinema's greatest poets, Rollin's position in film history is a particularly difficult one. Within his chosen genre of erotic horror, he was able to forge a personal vision of remarkable purity that might have been better appreciated coming from the experimental underground. His films are experimental in their glorious subordination of narrative to an oneiric concatenation of images- spaces, faces, bodies, events- and plot logic to the immediacy of visionary apparition. Their low-budgets often lend them an underground ambience, with its attendant attraction of cinema growing wild, potentially sprouting in un-anticipated directions largely absent from the more tightly pruned displays of the mainstream. Rollin's choice of genre was not motivated by the desire to slip into the mainstream or cash in on his vision. In the French film industry of the time, horror cinema was extremely marginal and he was forced repeatedly to take on projects against his will in order to survive, especially in the field of pornography. His work falls between two stools: from a mainstream perspective, he is perceived as a barely competent B-movie hack whose films can be seen at best as charmingly ridiculous; and his working in widely-despised genres precluded acceptance by art house standards.
Rape of the Vampire (1968)
Within this cinematic no-man's-land, Rollin allowed his creative impulses to run wild and the resulting legacy is that rare and priceless reflection on cinema: a body of work that feels less like films than dreams of films already seen. The essence of a primitive cinema that has passed through the enriching sensibility of an artist's night to resurface with the defiant naivety and crystalline delirium of a child's nightmare where the daft and the sublime melt into a single note of awed suspension. Formal re-invention is inevitable and for films that, at first glance, seem to be propelled by such a similar and immediately recognisable repertoire of (mainly sexual) obsessions, each of Rollins' finer works are surprisingly different from each other in tone and detail. The perhaps apocryphal image of little Rollin sitting on the knee of one of his mother's lovers, Georges Bataille, while the author of Story of the Eye read him fairy tales is hard to resist citing in attempting to convey a flavour of Rollin's films. There is nothing precious about them. They can be as wild (Rape of the Vampire), hilarious (Shiver of the Vampires), brutal (Demoniacs) and genuinely disturbing (Grapes of Death [Les Raisins de la Mort, 1978], Night of the Hunted [La Nuit des Traquées, 1980]) as anything one could mention. Yet at the heart of his cinema there is, if not a delicacy, a sense of the exquisite; a taut, hushed ecstasy. The sexualised mystery of his imagery at its best crops up in even some of his poorest films, making them worth sitting through for. When at the top of his game, it is all-pervasive, profoundly haunting, and only reinforced by repeated viewings.
- Maximilian Le Cain