Friday, March 18, 2011

Le Frisson des Vampires

AKA the Shiver of the Vampires
d. Jean Rollin

By 1971, French director Jean Rollin already had two films, Le viol du vampire (Rape of the Vampire) and La vampire nue (The Nude Vampire), under his belt. What's more, he had established a singular cinematic vision distinctly his own. One could draw connections perhaps to the serials of silent film director Louis Feuillade as well as more obtuse efforts by sexploitation directors such as Jess Franco and also the bande dessinee comic serials being produced in the Franco-Belgian market of the period, but Rollin's mixture of sex and surreal somnambulism stands apart. It is this very apartness that defines his work. True, these earliest of Rollin features are very much of their time, in a way unlike anything else in his oeuvre. The vampires hippies and psych rock scores date these first few films, or at least give them a retro flavor, but these psychedelic garnishes simply ornament a more profoundly ineffable center, one that is not beholden to linearity. These are films displaced in time, or perhaps it would be better to say that the time period they occupy is an amorphous one - call it memory. And as the time between their production, the late-sixties, and their present viewing increases, the otherness of these trappings only deepen the greater otherness at play. Kitsch is displaced as the camp bypasses nostalgia to stress another transcendence. Perhaps something inward.

These early films, floridly literate and tethered to Surrealism, are in direct opposition to the French New Wave which was then in vogue. Jean Rollin is a resolutely individual director, but he is not an auteur in the sense the French New Wave privileged. He is something else. And we must move towards what that something else is. It is easier to identify what Rollin's films are not. Rollin's work is just as out of step with traditional horror fare, with his preference for elliptical plotting and dreamlike pace, as they are with the art film. Is Alain Robbe-Grillet a possible analogy? Is Walerian Borowczyk? Maybe? Not quite? Where do these movies belong, then? Who is the intended viewer?

Rollin's third picture, Le frisson des vampires, known internationally as both Sex and the Vampire and the Shiver of the Vampires, continues to mine a twilight terrain between commercial exploitation and a profoundly personal cosmology. The film further stabilizes the tropes and tendencies first seen in Le viol du vampire, a movie Rollin has stated stands as a blueprint for his entire career. We return again to a place we never left. The hallmarks of Rollin's hermetic vision are present - Le frisson des vampires is replete with orphan girls and entourages of vampire hippies. Everything is illuminated in a garish, artificial lighting. It all ends, as is often the case with Rollin, on a deserted beach. The melange of late-sixties kitsch framing these images, as well as the uncharacteristically developed plot, fosters an accessibility uncommon in his oeuvre. But where does this supposed accessibility take us?

Is Le frisson des vampires a good introduction to the director's films? That's a difficult question, but perhaps the difficulty doesn't lie in the prospect of an answer, but in the question itself. Rollin's films work best as an accumulative whole. Viewed in totality, they compose a dream narrative of modular points. The viewer does not move in a linear fashion from point A to point B to point C, but from point A to an alternate point A to yet another possible point A. Sychronicities fall into place as if by accident, as inevitable as they very well may be. Is it even possible to truly first encounter a Jean Rollin film, or can the viewer only return to them again and again? The pleasure derived from his films grow as the viewer is further acquainted with the larger body of work and with Rollin's sense of le fantastique. A viewer divorced from a sense of the whole may become bored or disoriented, put off by stilted acting and an often dehabilitating low budget. A horror fan may get annoyed by the lack of gore. Another viewer, one accustomed to art cinema, may be dismayed by how the camera follows nude bodies with the same lingering gaze of pornography. Is this pornography?

The problem is that Le frisson des vampires possesses the signifiers of exploitation; it uses language developed by exploitation cinema to define itself, but employs this vocabulary towards a more personal vision. An exploitation director like Jess Franco falls more securely within the parameters of what the French New Wave classified as an auteur than Rollin, who I would argue does not. Perhaps this is because each of Rollins' films are on some level about their self-referentiality, the film's inevitable return to itself, while a Franco film simply returns to familiar tropes and themes on account of their director's personality and force of will. Jean Rollin's films compose a personal cinema rarely, if ever, seen outside of the arena of the art film. And such intensity of personal vision is uncommon even there. Is impractical, even there. But Rollin does not rely on the language which has been codified as acceptable for art cinema. And while this may be in some respect intentional, it is also circumstantial. An early film project of Rollin's was to involve French novelist Marguerite Duras, but was never completed as finances petered out. A collaboration with a recognized writer of the avant garde such as Duras, especially so early in his career, could have shifted any subsequent appraisal of Rollin towards a different demographic, towards what some would call a respectable canon. Instead, Rollin had to rely on the horror industry to produce his films. This perhaps worked in the favor of Rollin's pictures. Early shorts like Les amours jaunes, inspired by the poetry of Tristan Corbiere, are guilty of perhaps too earnest a literary pretension. The harsh realities which accompany such a profit-based industry as exploitation forced compromises of content and limited shooting schedules that, while they may have been pragmatically difficult to deal with, resulted in films of an unheralded dislocation and sense of the uncanny.

To a viewer familiar with the more severe minimalism of Rollin's later work, Le frisson des vampires may even seem over-stuffed. The plot may be simple; it involves three vampires' seduction of a young bride and her lover's attempt to halt the subsequent demonic transformation, but for Rollin such an involved plot approaches the baroque. The sheer amount of dialogue may surprise someone who has also seen the later Requiem pour un vampire, in which 40 minutes elapse before the first dialogue is even spoken. The resultant film is uncharacteristically extroverted, with an almost parodic playfulness and buoyancy. It occupies the space we expect a horror film to inhabit, but refuses to comply with expectations. The scaffolding which is the plot allows Rollin's moments of persistent image their incongruence and brilliance. When the female vampire played by Dominique descends from a chimney or creeps out from a grandfather clock, we are moved because these events are not addressed by the banalities of plot. The images exist as they are. The film is constructed like a carnival ride through a haunted house - the plot provides the tracks which the viewer moves along so that images may reveal themselves in succession. But the tracks exist on account of these image events. A successful viewing of the picture does not demand an explanation for what occurs. In fact, a better method of watching would be to actively divorce the images from the plot, to digest them within the context of how they relate to Rollin and his oeuvre, instead of how they relate to the plot or the confines of the film itself.

During a recent viewing of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, I was struck by just how thoroughly it subverts the tropes of the horror film. Von Trier interrogates the conventional usages of these tropes, and then reorients them towards another purpose, perhaps towards a reflection of their purpose. Jean Rollin's films, like von Trier's Antichrist, exist at a distance, or disconnect, from the greater contingency we can call genre horror or the horror industry. But Rollin exists at a different position in relation to horror than von Trier. Rollin is not a provocateur and while he is a consummately literate and intelligent director, he is not an intellectual director. Von Trier may be a ideologically anti-intellectual director, but only within the confines of his own particular intellectualism. The Danish director subverts the horror genre for other ends - Antichrist is the image of a horror film, rather than a horror film itself. Von Trier's Antichrist uses the horror film to approach the other, while the otherness of Rollin's films is their very dedication to the self.

Who is the ideal viewer of Jean Rollin's films? Perhaps it is Jean Rollin, or the image of Jean Rollin which the films present to the viewer - the Jean Rollin the viewer is willing to occupy.


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