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The universe of madness and death
Jean Rollin's Fascination (1979)
Arguably Rollin's most accessible film, Fascination succinctly illustrates the problems of genre, eroticism and
arthouse style inherent in the director's work. Brigid Cherry explains.
Fascination has been recognised by fans and critics alike as the most accessible film of Jean Rollin's sex-vampire cycle. The plot itself is minimalist: a thief (Jean Marie Lemaire), on the run from fellow gang members, takes refuge in a chateau populated only by two young women—Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elisabeth (Franka Mai). In line with the conventions of soft-core erotica, the man is seduced and lured to stay for a forthcoming soiree, while the young ladies—themselves indulging in lesbian encounters—turn out to be initiates in a cult of bourgeois women addicted to drinking human blood. Progressing into the realms of horror and the attendant bloodlust, Eva, having murdered the pursuing gang members, is herself sacrificed by Elisabeth, who ultimately kills the thief and joins the blood cult.
Though it may not exhibit quite the ponderous-yet-lyrical quality of Rollin's earlier films (see, for example, the "virtually plotless ramble" and "astonishing imagery" of Lèvres de Sang [Lips of Blood, 1975]), Fascination nonetheless remains a difficult text for the novice viewer—even the horror fan—unfamiliar with non-mainstream, non-American cinema.
Even amongst aficionados of Rollin's work there is an awareness that many horror fans familiar only with American movies and in particular the pacing of Hollywood cinema will find the films—including Fascination—too slow-paced. In threads entitled "Can Rollin survive?" and "Closer to arthouse" on the Mondo Erotico Jean Rollin Discussion Forum, user "KBray" bemoans the fact that:
I have shown Rollin's films to a number of my friends who are fans of the horror genre. Most of them find the films too slow and not plausible.
In reply, "Coplan in Mexico" claims that:
Rollin cannot offer [MTV pace and cool fx]. He offers poetry, beauty, sadness and death. He is a great artist.
The development of this discussion drew on notions of high culture, an arthouse audience and the appreciation of art cinema, "Frederick Durand" writing:
It's probably easier for fans of arthouse films than horror flicks buffs to appreciate Rollin's universe. Same goes for more intellectual viewers. Rollin's films are intertextual, filled with [references to] literary, artistic or "repertoire" films.
The arthouse public will appreciate the sense of visual composition, the surreal atmospheres, the quality of the dialogs [sic] and the true vision of a real auteur. Those things are hard to understand for the more "commercial" viewers who just want an easy "story" told in a simple fashion.
The use of scholarly and critical language in this discussion indicates that fans of Rollin are not unschooled in screen studies or notions of high culture. They are not, or at least not all, the slavering gorehounds of popular perception. This does, though, raise another question about the content of Rollin's films, namely that their exploitation, soft-porn elements means they are not often acknowledged or appreciated by arthouse audiences. This, too, is bemoaned by the fans. "Coplan in Mexico" again:
The problem is that arthouse audiences often look down on horror material, vampires, etc and consider eroticism to be misogynist. So Rollin is often rejected by both camps.
It is certainly true that until very recently Rollin's films have been unavailable and largely unseen. In turn, critical discussion has been minimal. Rollin does not merit any more than a footnote in Joan Hawkins's otherwise challenging recent study of horror cinema and high art. Fans, then, take Rollin for an auteur, but (in the words of "Kbray") they still acknowledge that "his synthesis of visual poetry, sensuality and horror basically has alienated him from every genre."
It seems unlikely that Rollin's films will ever achieve widespread popularity, remaining instead a cult taste restricted by and large to fans and followers of European horror or the fantastique (as Rollin himself on a number of occasions has labelled his own productions). A number of important points, however, arise from such discussion. First, that a mix of art and horror is problematical both for audiences and for critical recognition of an artist's work and second, that issues of genre are crucial to an understanding of Rollin's films. The question of eroticism, and the subsequent accusations of misogyny, also needs to be addressed. Fascination succinctly illustrates these problems.
It may well be Fascination's play on generic conventions that is most illuminating; here it is the exact form of the horror that renders the film problematical. The conventions and tropes of vampire cinema, including those related to the themes of sex and death, are well established in the horror genre. They are also present in Rollin's vampire films. In Fascination, however, the absence of any supernatural elements tips the balance away from the vampire genre into something much harder to classify within the broad spectrum of horror.
The supernatural of the traditional vampire tale is here replaced by the perversity of the blood fetish. The "paradoxical sex-vampire" is transformed into a blood cult. The emphasis of the text, therefore, is not on the "morbid dread" of the undead, but on a perverse and aberrant sexuality; namely, the pleasure to be gained from the drinking of human blood. This opens up contradictions in the film, particularly with regard to genre. Without the call to the supernatural usually found in vampire cinema, the "atmosphere of dreamy excess" evident in Rollin's earlier films remains but is rendered all the more transgressive. The fin-de-siècle setting of Fascination evokes decadence and, further, a decadent morbidity. The two moments in the film most illustrative of this are the opening scene in the abattoir and mid-way through the film when the gang of thieves is slaughtered.
Drawing on the short story The Glass of Blood by the French decadent writer Jean Lorrain, the abattoir scene addresses the taboo of the blood fetish. The imbibing of bull's blood as a cure for anaemia leads the viewer into the "masterpiece of amour fou, ...of allure and its fatal consequences." That this medical intervention will lead to a desire for and an addiction to human blood marks the oral sadism of the film not as belonging to vampire cinema, but to a cinema of sexual deviation and domination. This is the lure of the vampire for blood cultists, as identified in the research of Norrine Dresser.
In this respect, although the members of Fascination's blood cult resemble the female vampire of the traditional vampire film, they also, in the form of Eva, have their own angel of death. This feminine appropriation of the grim reaper (as Eva wields her scythe in the slaughter of the thieves who would interrupt the women's cult meeting) is one of the most iconic images from the film. In taking on the form of the medieval figure of death, the film does not just elide the vampire, but the supernatural aspects of the genre. There is more akin here to the rape-revenge cycle of exploitation cinema than other popular lesbian vampire films of the time.
Thanks to her new-found cure for anaemia and her taste for human blood, Eva is not an example of the heliophobic, pale-skinned undead. Rather, she is the picture of extreme health, with rosy lips, flushed cheeks and plump flesh. Thus Fascination enters the regions of soft-porn and exploitation cinema, while remaining imbued with horror conventions—here the men are always eager for sex and the women always willing to use this desire to lure men to their deaths.
The jouissance of the female cabal is rendered visually in the mise-en-scene of the chateau and its grounds that forms the backdrop to most of the action. The aristocratic dress and mannerisms of the women, the baroque decor and the otherwise haunting desolation of the sets, together with the images of sex and
death (at times almost resembling frozen tableaux), all enhance the decadent themes of the film. Fascination, then, presents a predominantly feminine sexual pleasure, but there is nothing sisterly in this blood cult. The subtext—as in other European sex-vampire films—may address the ideology of female sexuality, but this in itself is not unproblematic.
Such mingling of art and horror, of soft-porn and transgression, can only occur on the boundaries. "The counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility of paracinema" is indeed "devoted to all manner of cultural detritus," but a film such as Fascination—in its poetic address to both art-horror and sexual taboo—raises other issues. As Tanya Krzywinska claims, "cult films are those which are deemed to offer something beyond the mainstream usual and they frequently trade on the power of transgression." The economy of desire in Fascination trades on such transgression and does so without recourse to the usual romanticised conventions of the vampire film.
The fans themselves know this, and know that it is the barrier to critical recognition for Rollin. In their analysis of the situation, to quote from a post by "Frederick Durand,"
When you're in-between, you're not understood, being judged too "weird" for the commercial audiences, and using themes despised by intellectual audiences.
So when considering Fascination's position on the boundary where the art of "elite" culture meets "trash" cinema, the exact position is rendered all the more problematic by the lack of recourse to the supernatural and the subsequent blurring of genre. This is exploitation cinema of a wholly different kind. Fascination is, in this sense, all the more transgressive and stands out in the body of Rollin's work as a singular example of the cult film.
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1. Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies. London: Bloomsbury, 1988: 30. See also "The romance of
childhood," Doug Sparks's essay on Lèvres de Sang in this issue of Kinoeye.
3. Joan Hawkins, Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
4. See, for instance, Andy Black, "Clocks, Seagulls, Romeo and Juliet: Surrealism Rollin Style." In Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book 1, ed Andy Black. London: Creation Books, 1996: 177-188.
5. David Pirie, The Vampire Cinema. London: Quarto, 1977: 104.
7. Daniel Bird, "Jean Rollin: Cinematic Poet." In Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book 1, ed Andy Black. London: Creation Books, 1996: 62.
8. Norrine Dresser, American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners. New York: Norton, 1989: 150-56.
9. See Roy Ward Baker's Vampire Lovers (1970), Roger Vadim's Et Mourir de Plaisir (Blood and Roses, 1960) or Harry Kumel's Le Rouge aux Lèvres (Daughters of Darkness, 1971).
10. Jeffrey Sconce, "Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style." In Screen 36.4, 1995: 372.
11. Tanya Krzywinska, "The Dynamics of Squirting: Female Ejaculation and Lactation in Hardcore Film." In Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics, ed Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper. Guildford: FAB Press, 2000: 29.
12. Sconce, op cit.
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