In this lyrical horror film-cum-fairy tale, boyhood fantasies and romantic longing subvert the rational order. Doug Sparks speculates on what makes the vampire lifestyle so appealing.
It is one of the mild ironies of contemporary horror cinema that a genre considered forbidden viewing for many children is riddled with the images and fascinations of the adolescent, and often male adolescent, mind. The films of Jean Rollin, taken as a whole, may in the end say more about childhood than Mark Twain at his darkest ever dared. The great foundation myth in Rollin studies is that the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille read him bedtime stories when he was a child. It would seem that many of his formative artistic influences were encountered during his childhood. In an interview with Peter Blumenstock, Rollin states, "I work from childhood memories... I know that all my ideas originated from that time." These memories include the memories of films and the moviegoing experience in general.
As Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs note in their 1994 study Immoral Tales, Rollin's film Lèvres de sang (Lips of Blood, 1975) "combined all of [Rollin's] previous concerns—memory, time, deprivation of love." I would add to this list a concern with childhood itself. In fact, all three terms the authors cite may be included under the umbrella theme of childhood. Although Lèvres de sang, like most of the director's work, is rich with ambiguity, I argue that it suggests a thematic resolution, and one that speaks to a particularly romantic characterisation of childhood. Underneath the sublime tension, there is, I believe, a single object the main character seeks, is sought by, and unites with in innocent passion.
While it would be a mistake to assume that this film somehow pulls back the wool concealing the seething unconscious of all boys, I do think it obvious that the position of the boy as both viewer and participant is generalisable enough to suggest a consistent pattern. I say this to avoid any essentialist notion of boyhood, yet to reveal structural patterns consistent with memories as well as the actual experiences of adolescence. For what else is boyhood fantasy if not an encounter with the obscure? This lies at the root of monsters in the closet as well as wet dreams. Often it is an encounter with the law (the forbidding, the "no") in which fantasy creates a space where the subject might symbolically yield to desire.
My initial construction ignores the reciprocal relationship between law and desire. After all, the causality of law/desire is obscure; in a sense, the law creates the very desire it denies. Because the notion of transgression as a creative act of the law has become commonplace in critical theory, it need not be elaborated here. I am aware, however, that this notion complicates my analysis. Therefore, I do not wish to suggest that these categories are anything but provisional, or that they preclude deconstructive analysis. In Lèvres de sang, the distinction between law and desire is often tenuous, although I repeat that, ultimately, the film is coherent and does suggest, with little equivocation, a "right way."
Lèvres de sang highlights the play between various subjectivities and various objects. The subject positions include those of the characters as well as those of the audience. In all cases, dreams, photographs, recollections, shadows, secrets, underground passageways, locked and unlocked doors, darkness and other visual phenomena limit the ways in which images are rendered meaningful. The limitation is imposed because it presents itself as the seen versus the unseen; the subject knows that something is being withheld, and therefore encounters his own limits of awareness. Phenomenologically, the object appears in two guises, the visible and the obscure, and the subject's imaginative awareness is aggravated to the heights of paranoia. To render the object comprehensible, the subject is forced to project his own objects rather than receive them from the outside world. This is because the outside world is too fragmented, its symbols leaving only a trace, a suggestion of their presence, but not a lasting or complete exposition of their form.
Only in fantasy can the subject begin to give symbolic coherence to the world. The world is, in this manner, a tease and a seduction, drawing him in to a revealing of its contents as denial is relaxed in some cases and violently exposed in others. It is important to note how this movement goes both ways. The subject attempts not only to "uncover" the world but also to cover himself, to conceal his own motives, sensitivities and desires.
In an interesting play on this motif, the protagonist's vampire love interest in Lèvres de sang learns how to project her own image while imprisoned in her coffin, although first she learns to project her sight. She therefore disembodies her own subject position. The love interest's projected self seeks out the hero and guides him to her, creating the temporary illusion that it is he who is the seeker. In fact, the protagonist/seeker is often more sought than seeker, and his search is also an evasion. This evasion is necessitated by the various seductive and harmful agents in the world who attempt to limit what the protagonist knows, to forbid his desire.
So, ultimately, the hero does what all boys typically do given such a situation. He lies. He runs away. He effectively makes a choice about who will ultimately seduce him, to whom he will surrender his naked desires. In this case, the desire is starkly literal, but metaphorically it includes his ability to place his emotional and physical well-being, his desires, in confidence. Thus, despite the inversion in which it is the female object who seduces him and deludes him into thinking he is in control, this notion of power determines the narrative structure. It applies equally to sexual maturity (the seductive process being a delicate balance of revealings and concealings) and to other aspects of social power (the seductive process of public speech, of rhetoric, and the different meanings produced by what is said and what is left unsaid).
Doublings and mediations
In the first scene of the film, the protagonist-a young man named Frederic (Jean-Lou Phillippe)-flirts with two women (who in turn flirt with each other) at a party thrown by the manufacturer of a new perfume line. He is distracted when he sees an ad for the perfume. The advertisement contains a photograph of a ruined castle. This photograph occasions a flashback that is both pleasing and troublesome.
The doubling at work in this scene is sophisticated. There is the interaction between Frederic and the girl in the castle tower (to which I shall return momentarily). This parallels the interaction between the two women at the party. The memories touched off by the photograph invoke a flashback in which a boyhood version of the protagonist meets a young adult woman, the "woman in white" (Annie Brilland), who stands on the other side of a tower's gate.
Young Frederic has slightly longish hair and a soft, vaguely feminine look, while the woman in white, dressed in lace, sports a short, more typically masculine haircut. Their two faces look alike. Their hair is similarly styled, straight and with bangs. They both have reddish, soft-looking lips and eyes that, at least in the shot, appear to be some mild shade of blue or green. After the conclusion of this scene, the young woman remains mute for the rest of the film until Frederic frees her from her coffin. Returning to the rational, "real world," it is the party that now seems superficial and artificially constraining.
In this opening scene, Lèvres de sang focuses on a photograph that triggers a memory rendered as flashback. This is a structure that will be repeated throughout the film. On the surface, the doublings create a sense of structure, of exchange and of likeness, whereas the various mediations create a sense of mystery and obscurity. The mediations create distance between subject and object. However, both doubling and mediation involve images of images, making it impossible to hold to a rational notion of "what is." The first question Brilland's character asks young Frederic is "Why are you crying?" He isn't, and says so. Not only does the protagonist have trouble making sense of the image he sees, the woman in white misperceives him as well.
In the tower, the woman in white comforts the boy and raises for the first time the topic of vampires. She is there to protect him from the dead. He leaves a toy with her, a mechanical device in which a child stands before a tree. This Edenic toy later becomes a sign she uses to authenticate herself, to prove she is indeed what he remembers and that the game is coming to an end. From that point on, it is Frederic who must distort his intentions in order to protect his idealised love from the more pernicious vampirism of the mundane world. This world, as symbolised in the crass commercialism and superficial relations found in the opening party scene, is parasitic. Consider that the enigmatic photograph is contained within a rather plain poster advertising a new line of perfume.
The rational worldview thus attempts to constrain the irrational, to render it one more mechanism in a post-industrial economy, be it of gender relations or commercial products. Irrationality is the realm not only of the living dead and the various symbols of the fantastic, but of romantic love relations as well. Its containment threatens Frederic with the loss of his youthful idealism, and so he rebels against the forces of rationality. In Lèvres de sang, it is the doctors, police and parents who attempt to deny the protagonist his vitality, and the vampires and dark, nightmarish powers who, for the most part, help him to preserve this life energy.
Cutting back to the party, Frederic resumes his flirtations with one of the "lesbian" women, but is interrupted by his mother. Explicitly Oedipal, she stands between him and the woman and proclaims that her wine glass is empty. Once again, Frederic has been thwarted in his search for a love interest. After his mother leaves, Frederic begins to explain his fascination with the photograph to one of the women. She attempts some light sexual contact with him and he becomes annoyed. He is more interested in figuring out the mystery of the picture: it suggests to him a lost memory, some place he knew in childhood but has since repressed in his psyche.
This is a complex play of desire and regulation. It isn't clear if Frederic is interested primarily in the dream girl or in unfolding the mystery of his recovered memory, but it is clear that everyone's desires-with the ultimate exception of Frederic's and the woman in white's-are somehow at cross-purposes; respect for the mother effectively serves to block age-appropriate sexual impulses. The resulting imaginative play between law and desire and the resolution of this tension is the film in a nutshell.
From here on, the plot centers on Frederic's search for the woman in white, and her attempts to guide him to her. Along the way, he evades various forms of corrupt institutional control. As the film proceeds, the fluctuations in the relationship between subject and object produce not only longing, but repulsion and outright paranoia as well. A woman in outlandish make-up presents herself to Frederic as the lost object of his dreams. He is immediately suspicious. It later becomes clear that she is an agent for forces aiming to block Frederic's quest for discovery.
Another agent in this shadow organisation wears a government-style black trench coat and carries the gun of a professional detective or murderer. Later, Frederic is captured by men in white coats, guards at an asylum, who are secretly called to the scene by his mother. The human obstacles in his quest are generally professionals and represent specialised, adult, social, rationalised roles: enforcers of law, mothers, doctors and guards. Even the girls at the party in the first scene represent a cynical form of romantic relationship based solely on physical desire and material achievement- this type of romantic engagement is antithetic to the ideal relationship Frederic seeks.
Throughout the film, his mother denies the actual existence of the lost girl. It will later turn out that she is lying to him to protect a secret, the history of vampirism in the town. At the point where he is most aware that people are out to get him and are trying to keep him in the dark about the underground aspects of life in the village, he is committed against his will to an institution. The psychiatrist in charge turns out to be in collusion with this shadow organisation as well. The adolescent view of the law itself is in many ways fractured, external and paranoid. Frederic is finally rescued after the intervention of young, nubile vampires whom he has inadvertently set free by opening their coffins (morbid curiosity) and clumsily destroying a protective cross (removal of constraints and the law).
A happy (vampiric) ending
The semiotics of Lèvres de sang invite playfulness. This essay leaves a great deal of the film unexamined, and I do not aim to exhaust the interpretive possibilities of the various doublings, mediations and ambiguities. However, I do wish to suggest that these images are the stock and residue of boyhood imagination.
The film doesn't have the trite ending typical to many horror films, in which Frederic would be punished for his rejection of the false values of the law. Instead, he stages a fake murder of the woman in white. He elopes with her, and on a beach, with all the trappings of an otherworldly melodrama (swelling music from the woman's imagination, a passionate kiss, etc.), he bares his neck to receive the bite and become a vampire himself. In this idealised exchange of vows, Frederic is both penetrated and penetrating. Although the two are naked, the air of innocence is sustained. There is a spirit of fun and closeness in their interaction, not of lust or predation. The two then lie down in a coffin and the tide pulls them away, apparently to drift to a nearby island.
The final shots of the film leave unclear the result of their attempt. It certainly looks unlikely, but to believe so would be to betray the film's logic. In some sense, because they are beyond death, it doesn't matter. At the same time, the film is, formally, a comedy, and it ends in a romantic love union. Lèvres de sang presents a picture of a world that is isolating, incoherent and in which Frederic's strongest hopes lie with the irrational, even if he learns to cunningly use the logic of rationality to his own advantage. In this way, the conclusion is optimistic for a film thick with ambiguities. In the end, the hero gets the girl, or to be more precise, the girl gets the hero, as he surrenders to her and accepts a life of vampirism.
In his 1995 interview with Rollin, Blumenstock makes the following point:
It's strange: most people directing or writing in the [horror] genre also work from childhood memories, but they usually don't have nice stories to tell. They seem to have experienced awful things as a child, which is the reason why they chose the genre as their medium.
Rollin replies, "My childhood was wonderful, and my reflections of it are very romantic, sweet and utterly transfigured. Like recalling one's first love, 20 years later."
I don't wish to commit the fallacy in which I bundle Lèvres de sang too neatly under the notion of "a film by Jean Rollin," as it is, after all, the creative work of a producer, director/writer, cast, audience and chance itself. However, this film is apparently consistent with Rollin's other work in its evocation of childhood themes. Lèvres de sang suggests that confusion and terror can be the product of fascination, of genuine concern. It also evokes childlike simplicity, even romance in the traditional sense. What would be pathological and paranoid in the adult is here manifested as romantic love, intellectual curiosity and righteous refusal of the law in and by the adolescent.
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