Printer-friendly version of this article
Clocks, seagulls, Romeo and Juliet
Surrealism Rollin style
In this candid interview with the writer-director (and occasional actor), Andy Black gains important insights into Rollin's influences, motivations and cinematic experiments.
A grandfather clock is of no interest—a vampire woman getting out of this clock at midnight, that's me!–Jean Rollin
Dreams and life—it's the same thing; or else it's not worth living.—From Rollin's Les Enfants du paradis
As any viewer who is acquainted with Le Frisson des vampires (The Shiver of the Vampires, 1970) in the former case, or any of Rollin's surrealist fantasies (and that's basically his whole oeuvre) in the latter case will testify, the above quotations encapsulate Rollin's filmic raison d' être, symbolised in his kaleidoscopic costumes, decadent characters and nebulous romanticism.
|Requiem pour un vampire : |
Vampire sex epic
Whilst the Frenchman's early career focused on his now trademark vampire sex "epics" such as Le Viol du vampire
(The Rape of the Vampire
, 1967), La Vampire nue
(The Naked Vampire
, 1969) and Requiem pour un vampire
(1971), and encompassed moulding corpses in Le Lac des morts vivants
, 1980), masturbatory couplings in Hard Penetration
(1975) and grotesque gore in Les Raisins de la mort
(The Grapes of Death
, 1978), recent years have been somewhat less than vintage for the mercurial Rollin.
However, times, they are a changin' as the man said and perhaps the halcyon days are due to return with the release of Les Deux orphelines vampires (Little Orphan Vampires) in 1996—Rollins' first vampire film for some 10 years.
The master's well-documented love of the old Fench magazine serials or feuilletons shines through with the film being the first to be adapted from his long line of successful romans de gare (station novels)—a unique brand of French "pulp fiction," which also includes Anissa, Les Voyageuses, Les Pillards and Les Incendiaires in this particular vampire novel series.
With Les Deux orphelines vampires, Rollin revisits his obligatory two female vampire leads—Louise and Henriette here—and favoured gothic graveyard milieu as the duo of blind vampires ("clack, clack, clack, clack went the two white sticks") await nightfall when their sight (and more importantly, their appetite for blood) returns and they seek out new victims.
The vamps, with their dual personalities alternating effortlessly between good and evil, mirror the equally diverse nature of those Sadean characters Justine and Juliette, an irony not lost on Rollin to be sure.
I tracked down the ubiquitous Rollin in 1996, and here follows our lengthy dialogue.
You have stated that the poet Tristan Corbière and the artists Philippe Druillet and Clovis Trouille are among those who have inspired your work—in what way?
Jean Rollin: Corbière was a poet of the sea. And the sea is most important to me. My first short film was an evocation of Corbière on a beach near Dieppe. I was young, no money, no material, etc. But I was there, on that strange beach covered in stones, deserted, with just the falaise [cliffs] and the seagulls. And in my mind, I said: "One day I'll come back here with all the possibilities for a real shoot. For me, now, after six or seven films shot on that beach, it is mixed with the remembrance of Corbière. Druillet has nothing to do with my work, he is just a friend.
After the shooting of Le Viol du vampire I asked all my friends who can take a pencil to do an image for the poster. Druillet brought (an image) which immediately became the film's poster. Clovis Trouille paints, I think, as I film. When I see some of his paintings, it seems to me that they could be photos from one of my films. The same strange arrangements of the elements, romantic-expressionistic protagonists, expression of the imagination.
|Trouille's Mon tombeau|
Part of the mystery and
As for Magritte, Trouille paints people and objects in a realistic, ultra-realistic manner. It's the arrangement between the elements which forms the surrealist way. Paintings like Stigma diaboli
, La Violée du vaisseau fantome
[The Raped One from the Haunted Ship
—which could be the title from a Rollin film], L'Heure du sortilege
and so on could absolutely be images from my mind and my films. They are part of the "mystery of the imagination" I like so much. If you look at a painting like Mon tombeau
] it can recall many images from Le Viol
, Le Frisson
What influence did the likes of Georges Franju and Luis Buñuel have on your career?
It's the same kind. Buñuel shot visions like Trouille did paintings, or Magritte. We can take some images off the film, those images speak for themselves. They are independent of the story, they are the voice of Buñuel himself. So, in a film so banal in appearance like Susana (1950) or even Él (This Strange Passion, 1952), everything is shown by the vision of the artist. Personally, I am jealous of an extraordinary vision I saw in one of Buñuel's last French films. I don't remember which one but: a man closes a coffin, and some gold hairs from the dead girl inside are visible.
Such imagery leaves me full of exaltation. There are many such imags in Buñuel films. Franju is the author of the greatest film of the genre, Les Yeux sans visage (1959). Perfection of the script, of the actors, of the light, of everything. I was haunted during many, many years by the end, Edith Scob walking in the park with her face covered by the white mask, and the white birds and that music... I have tried to find that atmosphere of dream, poetry and madness in many of my films.
Same reflections about Judex (1963). It's a serial, like a serial. For me, where the cinema is near the surrealist poetry, near the primitive mind of childhood, it is the serial. My remembrance as a child is of the serials I saw after school every Wednesday—Zorro Fighting Legion, Mysterious Docteur Satan, G-Men Versus the Black Dragon, etc. I think I personally have shot two serials: Le Viol du vampire and Les Trottoirs de Bangkok (Sidewalks of Bangkok, 1984). Here a critic said, "Rollin has done with Bangkok the same film as his first one, Le Viol, 25 years after." And it's true! Bangkok is a kind of "Fu-Manchu" and the film was improvised to a great degree like Le Viol. When I was shooting it, I was in the same mind that I was for Le Viol. I was 20 years old again!
|UK video cover for Le Viol du vampire|Your first fantasy film Le Viol du vampire was considered daring for the time and was released during a turbulent period in French history—in what way did this film and the critical reaction to it shape your future career?
Le Viol was a terrible scandal here in Paris. People were really mad when they saw it. In Pigalle, they threw things at the screen. The principal reason was that nobody could understand the story. But there is a story, I swear it! Now, after such a long time, I think the principal reason is that the film was supposed to be a vampire story. The audience knew only Hammer's vampires and my film disturbed their classical idea of what such a film had to be. And outside it was the revolution , so people were able to exteriorise themselves. The scandal was a terrible surprise for me. I didn't know that I had made such a "bizarre" picture.
For me, it was so simple! In all the country, throughout France, the film was a scandal. In my area, a little village, the priest said to his audience in church that they must not see the film on release at their local cinema... I was the devil. And even the fans of such films were disillusioned and the critics wrote horrors about me. A great newspaper, Le Figaro, wrote: "this film is certainly made by a group of drunk people, probably medical students. It's a joke." I thought that my career was finished. But many people came to see that scandalous film, and the producers asked me to do a second one. La Vampire nue was not so delirious. But I kept one element from Le Viol, the mystery, like in the old serials.
Vampires burst from grandfather clocks, lovers are speared on the same stake—you are noted for your imagery, not your narratives—is this a fair comment?
The answer is this. The imagery in my films is certainly more important than the story itself. But the stories are done to provoke such images. In a certain way, the stories are "mad love" stories and the images are surrealist visions. The mixture of both makes my films.
In some ways your films break gender stereotypes—often two females are the lead players—is this a conscious attempt at "sexual equality" or a male reaction in showing seductive figures, often engaged in lesbian activities, or something else?!!
|Le Frisson des vampires (1970): |
The poetry of naked girls
Why the girls? I really don't know. Maybe a psychoanalyst can tell! Even in my books, Les Demoiselles de l'étrange are two, Les Deux orphelines vampires of course and many more. About the love scenes, I must confess that, for me, I prefer to see (and show) two girls naked rather than a girl and a man. For me, a naked girl is more interesting, for sensuality and for poetry (a naked girl is always poetry), to put her in a clock or in a chimney, or anywhere except a bed. Using things for unexpected uses is the base of all surrealist painting. See Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp. When Duchamp painted Nude Walking Down A Stair, it's no more a simple stair. It became the stair with a nude on it. Understand? My clock is no more a simple clock, it's a clock with the vampire girl in it [Le Frisson des vampires], then the girl killer hides in it [Killing Car (1993)]. It's become Rollin's clock!!
Regained memory and lost innocence also appear to be central themes in your work—why?
Every man is, consciously or not, researching, remembering his childhood. When I was a child, there was no TV, only movies. I saw so many films...with the innocent eyes of a child. Maybe I am trying to recapture those moments and make films with the same eyes I had to see Mysterious Docteur Satan or Jungle Jim...
These childhood memories would include such recurring locations as Dieppe beach?
As I said I was fascinated by that strange beach. I have seen many beautiful beaches in my life, but this one, I don't know why, for me represents mystery itself. It's a surrealistic beach. Three elements: the falaise [cliffs], the sea and the mouettes [seagulls].
How have you enjoyed working with such actresses as Brigitte Lahie, Marina Pierro and Françoise Pascal?
Brigitte is a pleasure to work with. She is quiet, she really likes to act, to play, and she does what is required of her role. When I took her for La Nuit des traquées (The Night of the Hunted, 1980) I was sure she would be great in the scene where she becomes insane slowly. And that sequence was the most important in all of the film for me. And I was right. Brigitte in that part was émouvante. Marina Pierro is Italian. Her temperament is fiery. It was good for such a character in the film. Françoise Pascal is very professional. Working with her was interesting because, to the contrary of most girls I'd directed before, she really was into the story, trying to bring ideas, to discuss what I had in mind. Her performance in the film is great. If she can find such roles to play she can go far, but what became of her?
|Lèvres de sang : Return to childhood|Lèvres de sang (Lips of Blood, 1975) is widely regarded as your best film—which is your own favourite and why?
I have no favourite. Maybe the next one! Lèvres de sang is certainly my best script. The story was really good, based on the childhood memories that the hero had forgotten. Every person is sensitive to such a story. Everybody has had a childhood love at some time, and in the film the childhood love came true! Of course I like Le Viol because it was so attacked! But I have a little love for Requiem and for Bangkok. But the best one is Les Deux orphelines vampires, probably.
La Rose de fer (The Rose of Iron, 1973) has been described as a horror version of Romeo and Juliet—do you agree with this description?
One day, a stupid journalist, who understood nothing of my films in general and La Rose in particular asked me: "But at the end, what is that film about? What did it mean?" And I answered: "What! You don't see it's my version of Romeo and Juliet? You have the boy and the girl and the cemetery and the family trying to separate them! But maybe it's true as you can see the film like that—but for me it was just a joke.
La Vampire nue is a personal favourite of mine for its dramatic use of colour, costumes and fetishistic imagery—it was also your first film in colour—how much of a difference did the use of colour make in your approach to the film?
After Le Viol I had to make a more classical film. So in place of the delirious images of Le Viol I tried to put some mystery into La Vampire nue. Mystery of the strange people, the strange girl who is not really a vampire, and mystery with the locations in Paris I found. Places had great importance for me in that film. For example, I like the strange meeting in the beginning between the girl and the boy (my brother Olivier) under the pale light. Nothing special, only elements of everyday, except the girl with her strange costume, but the bizarre atmosphere is there. Why? Which? What? I don't know, but the mystery is there.
You have been roundly condemned by critics for your excursions into pornographic/hardcore films—what is your response to such criticism?
I shoot X-[rated] films to have sufficient money to be able to live. I don't like the films but to make them can be amusing. I remember that period with pleasure. I liked the people I was working with, it was always one- or two-day shoots, very funny, a good friendly atmosphere. But no interesting films, that's all I can say.
You worked on Le Lac des morts vivants—segments of which originally appeared in Jess Franco's Christina, princesse de l'érotisme (Virgin among the Living Dead, 1971)—how did you get involved in that film?
I technically shot Le Lac des morts vivants because Jess Franco, who was supposed to do it, had disappeared! The producers phoned me one Sunday when I was asleep and asked: "Can you shoot a zombie film tomorrow morning for two weeks?" and I said "Yes." I haven't seen the sequence in Christina as I haven't seen that film, so I don't know if it's my sequence. But it's true I shot a sequence of zombies running after a girl for the same producer separately, and I don't know what was done with that footage, so maybe that's in Christina.
Your later living dead/zombie films such as Les Raisins de la mort and La Morte vivante (The Living Dead Girl, 1982) are very different in their approaches, the former with almost American-style gore scenes, the latter more psychological as well as sanguinary. What were your intentions in each of these films?
Raisins is probably my greatest commercial success. It's sold everywhere (except in England!). Because it's more like what is expected by the audience. The idea was to do a "living dead" film with the same horrors you would find in a Romero film, but with a different story. Romero's style is "claustrophobic," the people are holed-up in a house surrounded by zombies. I try the contrary approach; people are running in a vast countryside area, and, most importantly, my zombies are in part living, with consciences, they know what they are doing but can't stop themselves. So the sequence where the actor becomes mad and cuts the head off his girlfriend, telling her at the same time that he loves her, is very dramatic! And such a dramatic construction was not possible with the unconscious zombies in Romero's film and many others.
For La Morte vivante it's also the memories that interest me. The girl came back to life and now inhabits her former château, in her own room, and finds her childhood toys and other souvenirs come back one by one. It's very emotional, very dramatic. And that, for me, was the most interesting part of the film. The memories of the two little girls, the music box. And the end before one girl kills and eats the other one, she reminds her of when they were little girls. The massacre is a kind of love scene, like the killing with the axe in Les Raisins. The two sequences are from the same idea.
How did you get involved with Emmanuelle 6 (1988) and was it an enjoyable/rewarding experience?
In Emmanuelle 6, I like the character of the little savage girl. I was thinking of Yoko, the girl in Bankok for that, but she disappeared at that moment. I directed a part of the film in France. It was a job with no problems. I like to shoot "erotic softcore films," it's a rest for me.
|Fascination : Period vampire piece|Fascination (1979) is another highly regarded film of yours—there's a startling opening contrast of upper-class costumed ladies drinking blood from wine glasses in an abattoir. What was the thinking behind this and how do you explain your own fascination with vampires?
My idea at the beginning was to give Brigitte Lahie a costume from the beginning of this century! And to make a film practically entirely in a château. The first image of the script was the girls drinking in the slaughterhouse. That was inspired by a short story called "The Glass of Blood," by Jean Lorrain, an author of that period. The rest is my idea, from that: all the film shot in the château and just three people in most of the scenes. And Brigitte in a château dressed in 1900 costume period!
Can you tell me about three of your films which have never been available within the UK—Les Trottoirs de Bangkok, La Femme dangereuse and Perdues dans New York (1989)?
I have spoken of Bangkok before. Femme dangereuse (Killing Car is the real title) is a kind of strange thriller. There is a mysterious Asian girl, really so beautiful you should see her, killing people, nobody knows why. In a moment, she jumps from inside a clock to shoot! It's a minor film, but I like it; it's real B-movie style as in the good old time! Perdues dans New York is a one-hour film for TV. It's kind of a résumé of everything personal I've put in my other films. It's really shot in New York for the greatest part, and, of course, on the beach near Dieppe.
Your latest film Les Deux orphelines vampires sees you reunited with one of your earlier collaborators—Lionel Wallman—how do you rate the film compared with your previous works and what are the key elements?
Lionel Wallman is an old friend and he knows me very well. So, it's always a pleasure to collaborate with him. This latest film is a little different. For the first time I had a little money and time to work with the actors before shooting. The construction is the real construction of a film, and not an improvisation. It was easy, because the script is based upon the book. Maybe for the first time, I think it's a real movie and not a strange patchwork of eroticism, violence, blood, horror and Rollin's obsessions like before.
With elaborate figures such as the batgirl, we seem assured of more of your trademark outré costumes and images though?
The batgirl is an idea which was not in the book. It's one of the very rare supernatural moments in the film. The film is realist.
Your novels in this series run to five now—are there plans to produce film versions of these and have you a UK distributor for Les Deux orphelines vampires yet?
If this film is a success, of course the idea is to make a sequel with the five books. Having just finished the film recently the first thing we did was to mail a video to Redemption Films... every country is free...
Les Deux orphelines vampires marks your return to the vampire genre after a ten year hiatus—why return to it now?
It's not really exact. There is a vampire sequence in Perdues dans New York and the girl in Killing Car is a kind of vampire... but real vampires? Because of the five books. The idea was to put on screen the first one and then the others. Now I have in my mind a little vampire film totally set in the ruins of a medieval château... very low-budget but a classical vampire story with beautiful locations.
|French video cover |
You acted in Trepanator (1992) as a mad doctor—how did this come about and did you enjoy the experience on the other side of the camera?
As this was directed by Norbert Moutier and he is an old friend and writes many articles in France about my films, to act for him was very funny, and I also appear in his last film, Dinosaur from the Deep (1996).
You have a regular team of actors and technicians who are your friends—how important are they to the unique style and spirit of your films.
They know me and I know them. They trust me and that is great. Without my crew it's impossible to make such low-budget films.
"Dreams and life—it's the same thing, or else it's not worth living"—quoted from your own Les Enfants du paradis. Your own philosophy?
There are many beautiful images hidden inside the head of each human being. The idea is to take them and show them outside.
Printer-friendly version of this article
Rollin photo courtesy of Marc Morris of Mondo Erotico
Clovis Trouille's Mon tombeau courtesy of Le site de Clovis Trouille