Directed by: Jean Rollin
Release Date: 1971
This is the second Rollin film I’ve reviewed, the first being The Nude Vampire (1969). Like the earlier film this is an incredibly surrealistic film and very dreamlike. Rollin himself has said that it is “nothing else but a simple stream of ideas out of an unconstrained imagination.” Yet whilst I was disappointed with the Nude Vampire, I was anything but disappointed when I first saw this. Perhaps it was the fact that the acting is better in this or that the locations seem more fitting but I suspect the real reason is because it really does feel like a dream. It is ponderous in places and lacking in dialogue (I think there are a total of five words spoken in the first 40 minutes) but that adds, rather than detracts, from its dreamlike quality.
The film begins with a car chase involving an exchange of gunfire between the two cars. In the lead car a man drives with two young girls dressed as clowns. Michelle (Mireille Dargent) is in the front, taking over the control of the steering wheel when the driver is shot. Marie (Marie-Pierre Castel) is in the back, firing on the pursuer. We never truly find out the full detail of why, but much later in the film we discover that the girls had been at a New Years party and killed a man.
They evade their pursuers and burn the car (with the body of the driver inside), eventually reaching a castle (I’ll mention at least one of their misadventures on route later). The castle is haunted by a vampire (Philippe Gasté, who does not play Frédéric as imdb suggests). He is the last vampire and intends to make the girls members of the undead. His servants are, I guess you could say, semi-vampire. One of them, Erica (Dominique Toussaint), has developed fangs – and the shame of the film, as in other Rollin movies, is the use of comedy fangs – but the truth he reveals later is that he does not have the strength to convert them to full vampires.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is how Rollin reverses the vampiric chronology (so to speak). In the very early part of the film, when the driver is shot, we see him with blood on his mouth. Then the girls reach a cemetery. They hide from approaching men, actually gravediggers, and Michelle falls in a grave. The gravediggers fill the grave (or do half the job at least as the sun is setting) without actually looking in it and so bury Michelle alive. We see her emerge from the grave, helped by Marie, and this is reminiscent of a vampire rising – but remember at this point of the movie we have not seen a vampire. It is a fantastically done scene and as well as being reminiscent of a vampire rising it is also reminiscent of rebirth and the film does have coming of age overtones.
As they leave the cemetery they are startled by a bat. Later, in woods, they are surrounded by bats and both girls end up with bats attached to their necks. We can assume that the bats act as a control, taking them to the castle, as later the vampire releases bats from his cape and the girls fall under his thrall when they bite them, making them follow him into his crypt. Yet, again at this point, they have not met the vampire and yet have bite marks on their necks as though they have received a night time visitation from the undead. These bite marks later vanish, whether that was purposeful or a continuity error I cannot say.
As I suggested there are coming of age elements. The girls are trapped in the castle, when they try to leave they appear back at its gates. This is, of course dreamlike in itself (or at least nightmarish). They are then told that they are to be initiated – interesting sidenote, their instructor, Louise (Louise Dhour), refers to a vampire bite as the “divine bite of the vampire” and vampirism itself as a “blessed malediction” – and informed that they cannot be both virgins and vampires. They are then informed that they must lure prey back to the castle. Michelle uses sex as a lure and yet does not allow the actual act to happen, bashing her victim over the head with a gun and then being forced to drink from him after Erica has bitten him. It is clear that she has succumbed to the lure of the blessed malediction. Marie uses a more cerebral lure and yet decides to sleep with her victim (the aforementioned Frédéric), choosing to loose her virginity and then hides her new lover rather than hand him over.
This puts a point of division between the two girls and sees Michelle torturing Marie (by chaining her in the dungeon, naked, and whipping her) to discover where he is. It is clear, both through her dialogue and her tears, that she sees this as tough love, not wishing Marie to die for not telling. It is also clear that the love they share (there is a Sapphic romance between the two) will not be divided, even by such a fundamental divergence in goals. I also found it interesting that there is no real innocence in our two main protagonists despite their youthful look. They are technically virgins, but they know love from each other, they have killed a man, burnt a car and corpse, shoot guns and we see them steal.
The film abounds in surreal imagery, one might argue gothic but I would maintain surreal. We see hands, blooded, coming from walls holding candles, we see hooded, posed skeletons, we witness a piano being played in a cemetery during the girls initiation. It all builds into the dreamlike qualities of the movie. Being a Rollins film we also see a lot of naked flesh, including a Sadeian orgy that leads to the bizarre shot of a woman writhing, chained with a bat attached to her pubic triangle (to those who question where such scenes are I say to you that you have an edited version of the film).
The soundtrack is superb, wild jazz, progressive rock Hammond organ, solo piano and bongo drums might sound as though they would not work, especially in the same soundtrack, and yet somehow they do. I mentioned the acting at the head of the review and, in the main, it is excellent. Nothing seemed forced, Castel and Dargent seem utterly natural (and worryingly look very young indeed), and rather than appearing bored (as some in Nude Vampire did) there is an aloofness in some of the cast that fits perfectly the mood of the piece. The very fact that the actors get across so much with very little dialogue is a testament to them. That said I will have to mention that when the girls pour gasoline over the car and dead driver, at the head of the film, the actor does flinch!
I’ll end by mentioning the DVD version I have. I had this as a standard release DVD but there has been a series of Rollin films released (this being one of them) as deluxe collectors editions and I couldn’t resist getting this in this format (you’ll have to search, I got mine from Holland via e-bay). The DVD is a three disc set, in a very nice slipcase digipack and comes with 62 page booklet that includes the English translation of Rollin’s short story “Le Dernier Livre” (disc two has Rollins reading the story with English subtitles) as well as plenty of thoughts and anecdotes on the film from Rollin himself.
This isn’t as mainstream accessible as such Rollin’s films as “The Living Dead Girl” (1982) or “Lips of Blood” (1975) but it is a surrealistic masterpiece and accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean everything. 7.5 out of 10.
The imdb page is here.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Directed by: Jean Rollin