Dredge a few images from deep within your unconscious: memories of your childhood, the first films you ever watched, the first
comic books you ever read. Try not to censor your thoughts. Find a way to link these images into a story of some kind. Dont
worry too much about logic or a coherent plot. Then, without going back and revising your initial thoughts, shoot a film based
on this narrative. If you follow this method, you just might end up with a film like Jean Rollins 1972 feature Requiem
For a Vampire (Vierges et vampires).
Beginning with just two images--two clowns fleeing in the countryside, and a woman playing piano in a graveyardhe sat down
at his typewriter and commenced weaving a narrative, making it all up as he went along. And so, two girls dressed as clowns
shoot at a car pursuing them along a country road. They escape, but their male companion dies and they torch their car. The
girls ditch their clown costumes and change into miniskirts and knee sox. They discover a motorcycle in a dilapidated barn
and drive off until the bike runs out of gas. Hiding in a cemetery, one of the girls accidentally falls into an open grave
and is almost buried alive by careless gravediggers. The girls explore the ruins of a nearby chateau, spending the night in
the fur-covered bed. Awakened by strange noises, they come upon a woman playing the organ to an audience of skeletons in monks
robes. The woman turns around and we see her fangsshes a vampire. And he proceeded like this, with no clear end in mind.
Liberated from the rational chains of a constraining plot, the images in Jean Rollin's films take on an independent existence.
The story becomes a way to construct poetic bridges between autonomous images. This approach aligns him with early avant-garde
filmmakers such as Jean Epstein who believed that cinema like life is not about stories, about actions oriented towards an
end, but about situations open in every direction. In Rollins films one gets the sense that anything can happen at any given
moment. Like the surrealists, he is less interested in the supernatural, than in the fantastic as it manifests itself in the
everyday. More inspired by pulp writers such as Gaston Leroux and early silent serials than by traditional horror films, Rollin
makes them because the genre grants him the liberty to introduce elements of the irrational and poetic.
The resulting narrative is simple yet captivating: Michele and Marie, on the run from reform school, end up in a chateau where
the last vampire resides along with his two female disciples, Erica and Louise, and their bestial lackeys. A melancholic figure
more pathetic than frightening, he is searching for virgin blood to revive his waning energies and propagate his dying race.
Rollin will return again and again to images and motifs expressed confidently here for the first time: the two girls, gothic
castles, provincial graveyards, runaways, clowns. All that's missing is the beach at Dieppe, with its haunting cliffs and
twisted wooden poles, a crucial setting in almost all his films. There's very little dialogue, and the first lines are only
uttered 40 minutes into the film. This lends Requiem for a Vampire
a purity and naiveté that evokes silent cinema,
especially serials like Fantômas
or Les Vampires
. Pierre Raph's varied score, which incorporates free jazz,
psychedelic rock, and classical guitar, virtually accompanies every scene, underscoring the silent film atmosphere. There's
something extremely organic about the film, even as it constantly shifts tone (from playful, to frightening, to moving). Rollin
willfully rejects professionalism, preferring to make films with a group of friends in a spirit of adventure and play. Jean-Luc
Godard often speaks about the childhood of cinema, before it became an industry, when filmmakers like Mack Sennett made films
without a screenplay, freely improvising with small crews.
What the film lacks in production value, it more than makes up for in style. The cinematography is often stunning, and Rollin
has a real flair for filming the French countryside. In a beautiful long shot that evokes Murnau, the girls flee across a
prairie pursued by the vampires. Theres something otherworldly about the light in this scene, as if its both dawn and dusk
at the same time. Nobody films cemeteries like Rollin--in his films they become miniature cities, eerie colored light emanating
from individual tombs. An extraordinary tracking shot at night finds Louise playing romantic piano by candlelight amidst the
gravestones, the girls seated beside her. Rollin has a keen eye for color. Marie and Micheles flame-red clown wigs pop out
against the lush green surroundings. In one elliptical shot that Rollin holds for a long time, the surface of a pond gradually
takes on various hues. It takes us a while to register that the girls are washing off their clown make-up, since we only glimpse
their faces afterwards.
With their immaculate doll-like faces and impossibly huge eyes, the two leads, Mireille Dargent and Pony Castel, exude a haunting
beauty. The fascinating Pony would appear in many of Rollins films, often with her twin sister, Marie-Pierre, most memorably
in Rollins masterpiece, Lips of Blood
(1976). Marie and Michele's amoral innocence evokes the adolescent protagonists
of Georges Batailles Story of the Eye
. Indeed Rollins films come closer than any I know to capturing the spirit of
Batailles perverse fantasies and Sades gothic fairytales. Bataille himself, who had an affair with Rollins mother, would put
little Jean to bed by telling him bedtime stories about a character named Monsieur le curé--a wolf dressed in priests robes.
Despite the gratuitous nudity and requisite sex associated with the genre (and often demanded by producers), Rollins films
never come across as misogynistic. In Requiem for a Vampire
, the men tend to be either brutish, foolishly gullible,
or impotent. The last vampire accepts his fate with quiet dignity, but possesses no sexual magnetism. His female vampires,
by contrast, convey an erotic power. Though women are associated with the chthonic, we never sense the fear of the castrating
phallic mother that one encounters in such films as Lars Von Triers Antichrist
. Rollin seems to be in thrall to their
ecstatic jouissance. One thinks of Joelle Coeur as the sadistic and insatiable Tina, leader of a criminal gang in Demoniacs
(1974) masturbating on the beach, while her flunkies rape and torture the shipwrecked survivors. Furthermore, women, usually
two girls, are the protagonists of his films. Certainly Michele and Marie are objects of desire in the film, yet as spectators
we clearly identify with them, as does Rollin. They represent an innocence, but also a resilience and passion for adventure.
We encounter an adventurous female duo of one sort or another in almost all his subsequent films and novels. At times they
seem to share an imagination, even to be facets of the same being. In Requiem for a Vampire
, Michele and Marie often
appear to be under a spell of some kindand not only in scenes where they're actually hypnotized (as when theyre led to a torture-filled
crypt by one of the vampires disciples). They seemingly spend the entire film in a trance--as if the escapades befalling them
don't quite concern them. The awkward, amateur performances only enhance this effect. Gilles Deleuze spoke about the emergence
of a new type of actor with the French New Wave--a mutant who becomes a detached observer rather than an active agent in their
own stories. For Deleuze this signals a breakdown of classic storytelling and actiona hallmark of the modern cinema. This
leads to a new emphasis on time itself. Time and memory are indeed key themes in most of Rollins films. Furthermore, he paces
his scenes deliberately, often allowing them to play out in real time. One also thinks of his signature image: a vampire dwelling
within or emerging from a grandfather clock. Marie and Michele remind me of the two protagonists of Jacques Rivette's Celine
and Julie Go Boating
. Isnt the vampires castle a kind of House of Fiction? Both Rivette and Rollin have a fascination
for romantic literature and the serials of Feuillade, yet Rollins films are far less self-conscious. His films merge the intellectual
and sensual in a way that the nouvelle vague rarely achieved.
Rollins work has been misunderstood ever since Rape of the Vampire, his first completed feature, premiered in Paris during
the riots of May 68. A fascinating film, its a disjointed jumble of violent and erotic images: a vampire queen emerging from
the sea, a blind woman playing skittles, a woman drinking blood from a vat, a nude woman riding in a funeral procession. Midway
through the film, the dead protagonists of the first part come back to life. Reviled by audiences and critics expecting a
straight horror film in the Hammer mold, it touched a nerve and became a succès de scandale. While blood flowed in the gutters
outside the theater, bewildered spectators howled and threw objects at the screen drenched in rivers of artificial blood.
In some instinctive, affective way, Rape of the Vampire tapped into the rebellious zeitgeist. In hindsight, it can be considered
a subversive, political film. Glauber Rocha talked about how the paroxystic performances of his actors in such films as Terre
Em Transe viscerally embodied a kind of revolutionary politics.
His films have always been too arty to satisfy the horror crowd yet too exploitative and unprofessional to convince serious
critics. Mistaken for camp, at their best they attain a delirious convulsive beauty. The time is ripe to elevate Rollin to
the front ranks of postwar French filmmakers. He should be regarded as the rightful heir to the poetic surrealism of Jean
Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, and Georges Franju. Make no mistake: Rollin is a bona fide auteur, compulsively returning again and
again to the same images, themes, locations. He often speaks about how these obsessions can be traced back to childhood experiences.
Although the exploitation market enabled him to keep making films, Rollin should be seen as a poète maudit obsessively searching
for something in his past. Freud called it the uncanny. Tristan Corbière, the doomed romantic poet, called it a homesickness
for a land he'd never seen.