Friday, December 11, 2009

Jean Rollin's Lips of Blood (Levres de Sang) (1974)

Jean Rollin writes, "I think that Levres de Sang is my best story because it recalls the world of childhood memory and first love." Producer Jean-Marie Ghanassia approached Rollin with the idea of making a film together with a small budget and giving its director complete freedom. Ghanassia had previously seen Rollin's earlier work and admired what he had seen. Four weeks were allocated for the shooting of Lips of Blood (1974), but unfortunately, a week before shooting one of the film's financiers fell out of the production (Rollin cites the producer declaring bankruptcy). Rollin would have to completely cancel the film or shoot the film in three weeks. Rollin agreed to the shortened schedule, and he writes, "It was almost unthinkable: entire scenes were axed or boiled down to two or three sentences. We had a different set-up every day. It was raining. Things had to be tightened."
Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) attends a soiree with his mother (Nathalie Perrey) where he spies a perfume promotional poster depicting a photograph of some ruins. Frédéric has a Proustian moment, and his memory hearkens back to himself as a twelve year old. One cold evening, lost and scared, young Frédéric seeks solace at the ancient location. Behind its barricade, Frédéric meets gorgeous young Jennifer (Annie Belle) who comforts him and wraps him in her shawl. He spends the night and slightly before dawn, Jennifer wakes the child. Frédéric leaves his toy with the young woman and tells her "I love you." He runs home, promising to come back but never returns. The photographic image and the subsequent memory awakens Frédéric to a powerful obsession to revisit the location and visit a certainty--the young woman is still there. "This is the first film where I was deliberately trying to elicit an emotion," Rollin writes, "the nostalgia of childhood."
Rollin admits Lips of Blood is uneven. The film feels hurried and most of the plot revelations come from the characters' lips. Rollin writes, "Three scenes were replaced with a long off-screen explanation by the mother. It was such a jumble that my assistant confessed that she didn't understand the film anymore." Putting the burden of the characters carrying the plot was perhaps too much for its principal actors, Philippe and Perry, as their scenes together feel like an attempt to generate emotion with their words which Rollin could produce much more powerfully with images. Subsequently, their performances aren't very good and are a jumble of emotions: Frédéric appears at times like an child in an adult body, a momma's boy, and an obsessed lover. Perry is saddled with the primary task of delivering the exposition and the plot revelations.
However, the images do survive the jumble and are aided by its genuine locations. Rollin writes, "There were breath-taking locations: the ruins of the Chateau Gaillard where Marguerite de Bourgogne was strangled; the decimated old Belleville with its empty streets and boarded-up houses; the aquarium at the Trocadero, a childhood favorite of mine. It's no longer around, but it was a magic place. I believe that the only existing record of it is in the scene from Levres De Sang." Rollin fails to also mention the beach at Dieppe (hauntingly beautiful and used several times as a location for Rollin), and the authors of Immoral Tales reveal possibly why Rollin wishes not to revisit this memory:

The final scenes take place on the beach at Dieppe, and Rollin had to fight tooth and nail with the film's backers to be allowed to shoot there.
In fact that last scene almost led to the end of his career. The producer had hired an expensive coffin...The waves were fiercer than had been expected and soon it was obvious that the empty coffin was being pulled out into deep water. When Rollin dived in to rescue it a particularly vicious wave brought the coffin crashing down on his head, knocking him unconscious. He was only saved at the last minute by his lead actor, Jean-Lou Philippe, who dived into the waves to rescue him. (I edited out of this passage a brief clause which contains spoilers.)
Frédéric's initial memory of the meeting with the young woman at the ruins is bathed in soft blue light against the night backdrop. Belle's Jennifer is beautiful, and with Rollin's imagery, she becomes memorable. The Belleville sequences are as Rollin describes them, and the introduction of the four female vampires donning shear fabric walking amongst their shadows are disorienting and intoxicating. Watching the beautiful young actresses, so full of life, playing the undead, like little children amidst the rubbled surroundings is a highlight. The Castel twins play two of the four vampires and again, Rollin falls in love with them. They have a wonderful sequence in a hospital. The Dieppe beach sequence is hampered by some awkward character compositions (perhaps from the hurried schedule and some hostility at the location?). Nonetheless, Belle captivates during this sequence and takes focus, despite the gorgeous natural scenery (which must have been extremely cold as Belle gives more than a few shivers).When the characters aren't speaking and delivering plot exposition, Lips of Blood shows Rollin's poetic ability with the camera. Rollin conceived his best story to match his superior visual talent. External problems with the production hampered his narrative, yet the imagery survives and is, again, powerful, beautiful, and surreal.
The quote from the first sentence, the parenthetical note in the fourth sentence, and the quote from the sixth sentence in the first paragraph are from Jean Rollin's essay on Lips of Blood from Virgins and Vampires, Crippled Publications, Germany, 1997, edited by Peter Blumenstock. All other objective facts from the first paragraph about the production are from Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs. The final sentence quote of the second paragraph is from Rollin's essay from Virgins and Vampires, as are all facts and quotes from the third paragraph and the first quote in the fourth paragraph. The anecdote about the Dieppe location and the block quote are from Immoral Tales.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

Interesting review, Hans. When are you going to do a review of disturbing behavior? That film has nostalgia value for me. And that is large and in charge.