Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jean Rollin's La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire) (1969)

With humility, Jean Rollin speaks of the final sequence of his second film, La vampire nue (1969) (no spoilers): "Again, the screenings were punctuated by laughter and sarcastic remarks. For me the most painful laughter came during the scene on the beach; on the pebbled shore a vampire suddenly emerges from a box. This is one of the most unusual images of my cinema, and despite the whistling and heckling it remains dazzling for me. It's there that true strangeness lies." (quote taken from Jean Rollin's essay on La Vampire Nue included in Virgins and Vampires, Crippled Publications, Germany, 1997, edited by Peter Blumenstock) Rollin's second film brought him the opportunity to make a "real film," (following his feature, Le Viol du Vampire, two shorter films shot to create one full-length film) with adequate time to write a script and prepare for the production. Unfortunately, Rollin admits he managed the film's budget poorly but being able to complete photography before editing. To compound matters, considerable debt was incurred for the sophomore film maker, and a bed stay during editing for its director, having been injured after being hit by a car. Nonetheless, Rollin does have fond memories of the production, including having "succeeded in including certain images that were important to me." For me Rollin's images have always been important. Having first viewed his cinema and La vampire nue, well over twenty years ago now from Nth generation VHS dupes without a lick of knowledge of francais, his imagery was always striking. The images spoke in their own language and told traditional tales, often romantic, conveying a poetic sense that few artists would be brave enough to dare (in this Post-Modern era where irony is the norm).The authors of Immoral Tales write, "La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire; 1969) was based around the idea of 'mystery.' Each sequence was to heighten the mystery and lead it forward to the next sequence. Any explanation that had to be given was to be held off until the very last possible moment." Rollin begins with a silent sequence, shrouded in mystery, as presumably scientists, donning brightly-colored cloth masked hoods, draw blood from a nude female, save a cloth hood masking her identity. Iron gates are opened with the following sequence, and a young woman wearing wrapped shear fabric peeks out of her fortress to wander the streets. The streets hold several lurkers, donning elaborate masks of animals, and among the night shadows, these figures give the young woman chase. Rollin introduces a signature motif: the male chance encounter with the beautiful young woman. The young man, later revealed as Pierre (Olivier Martin), senses the young woman (Caroline Cartier) is in trouble. He attempts to flee with her only to be trapped in an alleyway, where the woman is subdued and carried away back to the fortress. Pierre escapes, and with his new obsession, he is determined to gain entry into the fortress and discover the young woman's identity. The sequential narrative of La vampire nue is at times intriguing and at times a would-be annoying contrivance, if the visuals weren't so amazingly fantastic and striking. (Rollin would wisely adopt looser and more traditional narratives for his subsequent two films (and two of his best) Requiem pour un vampire (1971) and Le frisson des vampires (1971) as canvases for his imagery.) Each sequence, instead of a puzzle piece for an escalating mystery, is rather a stanza of arresting poetic visuals. Pierre needs help and he calls his friend, Robert (Pascal Fardoulis). Robert is an artist, and preceding Pierre's phone call, Rollin introduces Robert behind his easel with brush in hand. The subject of his painting is a beautiful young nude woman. As Robert eyes his model, he observes her curves, watches the way the light reflects upon her skin, and instead of being inspired as to how to render her image, Robert becomes seduced by her beauty. Hearing no brush strokes and sensing Robert's longing looks, the model actively seduces her artist. It's an intimate scene without words and save Pierre's phone-call interruption of the subsequent lovemaking, the scene would have no narrative weight. Rollin's sequential mystery cannot compete with his imagery: all intrigue in La vampire nue comes not from some plot revelation but from an artist's imagination. Another of Rollin's signature visual motifs would appear in La vampire nue: the image of a pair of young women. As a visual motif, often Rollin's use of the pair is affecting, as it is evocative of the Gemini twins. In La vampire nue, the pair is portrayed by "the two Castel twins, serious as popes, two little hairdressers thrilled to be realizing thier Hollywood-dream, coming of age just before the shoot." (Catherine Castel and Marie-Pierre Castel; Rollin would continue to work with both or either during the seventies.) In this passage, Rollin gives some anecdotes about working with the two but also reveals a little of his obsession with pairs or twins:

I wanted them by my side every day, until the production director Jean Lavie let me know that I was "vampiring" them, sapping them of their energy and wasting them away. They looked like two little celluloid dolls dressed up for some perverse game. Jio Berck's costumes resembled sadistic machines like the ones described by the Comptesse de Segur in "On ne prend pas les mouches avec du vinaigre." One of the twins knocked herself while falling down a flight of stairs. (The scene is in the film.) She was very proud of it and is still talking about it today.

Beyond their visual power, the image of the pair conjures the idea of "together." No journey will be taken alone. The Castel twins are a highlight of La vampire nue, and Rollin seemingly goes out of his way to focus his compostions upon the two. Their roles are important to the narrative, yet Rollin is having more fun using them in his "perverse game" than as characters advancing a plot.
La vampire nue is a haunting experience of images disorienting, fantastic, and surreal. Rollin's cinema is highly influenced by some of the earlier French cinema, like Louis Feuillade (Les vampires (1915), for example) and Georges Franju (Judex (1963), for example), but with La vampire nue, Rollin would make his own mark and begin to develop some of his more personal themes. Jean Rollin would eventually become a truly unique film maker whose work I greatly admire and love. La vampire nue is a striking early work.
All quotes from Rollin and objective facts about the production are from his essay on La vampire nue from Virgins and Vampires. All other facts are taken from their sources as noted within.


Jenn said...

Excellent post on a strange director, to be sure. I've often wrestled with Rollin's films -- do I love him or does he just piss me off? I think you've hit on some important tropes of the filmmaker here - the pair of women, the surrealistic qualities. I'll keep coming back to this director, but he often leaves me baffled and not always in a good way.

Hans A. said...

Thnx Jenn for your kind words and taking the time to share your thoughts. Rollin's work certainly provokes equally strong reactions in both directions.

Ben said...

Thanks for this review - some really interesting reflection on a film I absolutely love.

Rollin's first four vampire movies all rank as some of favourite films of all time, although I find it difficult to write about/explain the combination of elements that makes them so extraordinary...

It's interesting that you should mention the influence of the Franju/Fueillade sense of 'mystery', as that's something that occurred to me recently when I watched a double bill of Franju movies and a new DVD copy of 'La Vampire Nue' on the same weekend;

Franju seemed to love doing scenes where he'd introduce an exciting new character or situation visually and then leave things as long as he possible could before letting the audience know who they are / what's going on.... an idea Rollin takes to extremes in this film by opening with about half an hour's worth of footage that's utterly beautiful but completely mystifying (even by his standards)! - really one of the greats.

Hans A. said...

Ben--thnx for sharing your thoughts. I really love Rollin's work, too, and it's good to know that others do also.

I, too, within the last year or so, watched Judex and Nuit Rouges (sp?) and immediately thought of Rollin's early work. The French New Wave gets so much attention from critics, other French film makers of the period don't get talked about much.

Also, I would be really curious to hear your thoughts on Rollin. There are some film makers whose work is like a drug to me and their work is affecting, although I don't really know why. Appreciate your thoughts and comments, again, Ben.

Mr.LargePackage said...

I love twins. And that is large and in charge.

Aaron said...

Awesome review, man. Personally I like Jean Rollin a lot. I absolutely love his style. Other than the sites out there dedicated to him, I don't really see Rollin getting mentioned on the other blogs, so thanks for covering this one. Hopefully there will be more in the future!

Hans A. said...

Mr. LP--what a shock, you naughty boy.

Aaron--thnx again for the nice words. I love Rollin and most certainly be covering more of his work soon. Probably write up Lips of Blood soon this month.

Aaron said...

Sweet! From what I've seen I like FASCINATION a lot and I love GRAPES OF DEATH. I didn't really enjoy LIVING DEAD GIRL but I may have to watch that one again. Besides, the transfer of LDG was shitty. Redemption puts out a lot of Rollin movies, which is awesome, but unfortunately their transfers tend to suck.