Sunday, January 28, 2007

Two Orphan Vampires – review


Directed by: Jean Rollin

Release Date: 1997

Contains spoilers

This later film by Rollin, based on his own novel, is somewhat of an oddity - which I know is an ironic thing to write about a Rollin film, but to me it is very much stage like or, even more so, performance art. The stage-ness is apparent within the dialogue, one feels very much that it is suited more to a play than a motion picture. The performance art comes in with the various “outcast” characters the eponymous orphan vampires meet. The outcasts are supernatural creatures such as they – and we will meet them within the review – but they (in the main) appear just as normal people. Fancy costumes and makeup is not the order of the day, we are asked to believe in them through their performance and our imagination.

The film begins in an orphanage run by nuns where a visiting doctor, Dennary (Bernard Charnacé), examines two orphan girls who are blind. It appears that they were once sighted but inexplicably lost their sight, though there is no obvious reason for it, and he confirms that they are blind. The nuns put pressure on Dennary to adopt the girls.

Louise and HenrietteThat night, when all are in bed and Sister Martha (Nathalie Perrey) has made her rounds, the two orphans wake and laugh, they pillow fight and spot a dog in the graveyard nearby. The two girls reveal that they can see at night, in blue, though this is a secret and, later, we discover that their names are Lousie (Alexandra Pic) and Henriette (Isabelle Teboul). They sneak off to the graveyard, which they describe as their true home.

attacking the painterIn the graveyard they indicate that they came from under there, in other words a grave, and they are both dead and alive. They also have somewhat patchy memories of their past lives. They do recall, however, one past existence and the time of the hunt. The film cuts to New York and we see them walking along a bridge and an attack on a painter.

We then see them run through the city to a graveyard, where they wash the blood from each others faces with water from flowers left upon a grave. We also see them climb a fire escape up to a building.

dying in New YorkIn the building, that is bathed in a red light, we see them stumble and fall. Though there is no reason for this it looks as though they have been shot – though this is not explicit. What is certain is that they die. Later in the film they liken themselves to Aztec Goddesses, perhaps even believing that they were Goddesses, and make the point that the Gods of the Aztec were unusual in that they were mortal. They refer to their deaths as mishaps and, I feel, that one of the messages of the film is that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. We do not see the death in New York, cutting from the scene in the graveyard to the scene of their death (as though they cannot remember the details), we see no other past deaths and the behaviour of the girls suggests that they do not learn from one incarnation to another.

Of course, from a genre point of view, it does mean that Rollin has already introduced two very fascinating and unusual things out with standard vampire lore. He has the vampires able to be killed by mortal method – though they seem to always return - and rather than sunlight killing them, its only effect is to make them blind. We can also tell, because of the fact that it is a church run orphanage, that religious icons do not have an effect upon the girls.

feeding on dogBack in the graveyard we see that they are truly vampires when they feed upon the dog and we get a glimpse of their fangs. These girls are not delusional in their belief of their vampirism but, perhaps, humanity would call them so and we see this in the next memory – when we meet the first outcast.

Nathalie Karsentty as She WolfThey remember being chased and being in a rail freight yard. A woman watches them from above and then jumps before them. It is still light and they cannot see, though night is coming. The woman tells them that she has escaped from a clinic as humanity thinks her mad but she is She Wolf (Nathalie Karsentty). To prove this, once their sight has returned, she pulls her dress down to reveal the wounds over her breasts. Scars from packs of dogs that treat She Wolf as an enemy. There is no transformation scene, a simple plaintive howl to the moon offers us further evidence, and then she senses approaching dogs and runs.

The girls are adopted by Dennary and taken to Paris and I really do not wish to spoil much more of the story other than to explore the other outcasts and a little more of the lore that Rollin put into this.

Veronique Djaouti as Midnight LadyAt one point the girls go to a cemetery and as the sun sets they hunt. They are spotted and chased and take refuge, having failed to kill themselves so as to not let themselves be caught, in a chapel. In the chapel they see a fanged woman with bat wings who calls herself Midnight Lady (Veronique Djaouti). This is an outcast who does have a costume. She is dressed in purple Lycra and her arms are giant wings. However when we see her walk downstairs the wings are obviously a costume and yet it doesn’t matter, this is performance art and we have already suspended our disbelief.

sleeping in a casketMidnight Lady is a vampire, more adept than the orphans, and she offers them shelter for the night, allowing them to sleep in a casket, but they must leave at dawn as she is solitary in her hunting. We, of course, do not see the hunt, but she describes how she flies above the cemetery swooping down upon victims.

feeding each otherWhen leaving the cemetery the girls are thirsty, to the point that they seem pained, and we see them feed upon themselves. The feeding is gentle, almost the kisses of lovers and Rollin very much puts an undertone that the two girls are lovers. This undertone is incredibly subtle, however, and beautifully done creating a mutual reliance that goes beyond the obvious reliance when the girls guide each other during the times of their blindness and a love that is more spiritual than physical. The girls also reveal that they have a liking for alcohol, “Not as good as blood,” they comment, “But it’s stronger.”

Tina Aumont as the GhoulThe final outcast they meet is only a brief meeting but, again, I’ll mention it. They see a woman and wonder whether she is a drunken party girl they can feed on. Henriette recognises, however, that she is an outcast and they speak briefly. She is ghoul (Tina Aumont) and the girls, who drink upon the living, seem repulsed by her habit of feeding upon the flesh of the dead.

A fascinating film, the soundtrack works nicely in that odd Jean Rollin way and the fact that we see very little, probably because of budget, means that our imagination works overtime. Midnight Lady may be a woman with lycra and false wings but we can picture her soaring over cemeteries looking for her next meal. The DVD print of the film seems a little poor however, with some blurring on panning shots and dropping in quality during steady shots occasionally with the print being a little too dark in places also.

fang shotThe film is sometimes described as an adult fairytale and I would tend to agree, though the tale is from the point of view of the monsters and the monsters are vulnerable and lost. The vampires are rather sad, the story melancholy and whilst they do not hold the moral framework we would expect a human to have we side with them and it is very much humanity who are revealed to be the real monsters. This concept is really illustrated when innocence befriends them towards the end. Interestingly, at this point the girls reveal that our reality is their dream for the dead dream of the living, not the other way around.

This is not Rollin at his best, some of his early efforts are much more satisfying, but it is still worthwhile for the aficionado of the existential director’s work. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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