Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: Le Viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire)

While ultimately not as completely captivating or accomplished as Jean Rollin's later works, Le Viol Du Vampire (1968) can rightly claim to being one of the most daring and alive debut feature films of the sixties. It remains, forty years after its first scandalous showing, a remarkably potent and fresh work that clearly introduces Jean Rollin as one of the most maverick filmmakers of all time.

Le Viol Du Vampire is actually two films in one (with the second and longer part being entitled La Reine Des Vampires) and the clever placing of title cards to mark the individual films works as a clever tribute to the serials Jean Rollin grew up with, as well as separating it from almost anything else in French Cinema at the time.
Rollin, writing in the essential Virgins and Vampires book, recalled that “I was not quite sure that I would get a chance to make a second film” so “like most beginners I packed it with as many images and ideas as possible.” ‘Possible’ is indeed the key word there and it is the possibility of cinema itself that works its way throughout the whole of Le Viol Du Vampire. While it may contain some of the flaws inherent in many debut features, you can really feel how drunk everyone was on just the idea of making the film, and the effect is quite exhilarating.

Rollin admitted in Virgins and Vampires that he was in fact “ecstatic during the filming” but that indeed he did feel “stifled by (a) complete lack of experience.” Considering a nervous first-time feature length director made the film with basically a group of friends, Le Viol du Vampire is a remarkably confident piece that works with the refreshing notion of daring to leave some mistakes in. Indeed, a personal favorite moment in the film comes towards the end when we see a prop behind Jacqueline Sieger’s Queen fall over, and Rollin’s choosing to leave it in gives the film an almost childlike quality…refreshingly too wrapped up in the adventure of making the film itself to be bothered with an expected cinematic perfection.

Rollin fills his first film with many nods to works that influenced him, nods that would continue to separate him more and more from the French New Wave that had filled French theaters throughout the sixties. Remembering shooting the second part of the film in Virgins and Vampires, the novice director admitted that he felt more “confident” and that it was this confidence that allowed him to tip his hat to “a forgotten Italian film called Sul Ponte Dei Sospiri (1952)” during the remarkable torch lit duel scene which is quite unlike anything else seen in French cinema before or since. Rollin also mentions more obvious inspirations on Encore’s audio commentary for the film (an extraordinary talk where the director manages to make the rather freewheeling work feel more concise than anyone might have previously imagined) such as the legendary Fantomas and Judex serials. Franju’s Judex also clearly plays a role, as Rollin has stated his admiration for that iconic director as well.

Like the majority of Rollin’s greatest works, Le Viol du Vampire works best as a completely visual piece and at times it has an almost silent film quality to it. Rollin’s trademarks like the castle shots in the first section and the beach images of the second are here, but perhaps most unforgettable are the moments inside the legendary Grand Guignol Theater, as well as the deserted haunting final images shot on one of France’s most famous streets.
One gets the feeling watching Le Viol du Vampire today though that perhaps Rollin was a bit too ambitious for his first film…as though he hadn’t totally mastered the art of the low budget shoot the way he did in his later more minimal works. American producer Sam Selsky gave Rollin a very small shooting budget and at times the film feels compromised by it. Surprisingly Selsky’s biggest contribution to the production is that apparently it was his suggestion to include the film’s nude shots, which now seem so trademark Rollin that it is hard to imagine anyone else suggesting it to him.

Rollin approaches the subject of his first venture into eroticism in Encore’s booklet that accompanies their set of Le Viol u Vampire and it is worth noting. He writes, “I would like to explain the reason for that omnipresent eroticism in the two parts of the film, that I would often be reproached for. Someone even wrote that the fantasy films I was making were only pretexts, alibis, and that my true wish was to make ‘skinflicks’.” It’s been a complaint by many of Rollin’s biggest critics over the years but one glance at Ground Zero in Rollin’s feature film work will show this to be the furthest thing from the truth. While the film does contain the expected amount of nudity (that Selsky had demanded) it is the film’s wonderfully realized compositions and willingness to be distanced from everything expected that makes it work so well. This is not the work of a hack shooting nudie pics, Le Viol du Vampire signals Jean Rollin as a very serious filmmaker and it’s the beginning of one of the most accomplished auteur careers of the past fifty years.

Technically, considering the limited budget, the film is quite a wonder to behold. Photographed beautifully in black and white by Guy Leblond with some truly intriguing lighting set ups and featuring a cast of charismatic unknowns willing to go as far as Rollin asked them to, Le Viol du Vampire is a compulsively watchable film that fits in perfectly well with his more talked about later works.
Troubled by censorship issues, critical dismissals and a rather baffled public, Rollin’s first film would essentially disappear for many years after those initial showings that were posted on here previously. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs would write in their Immoral Tales that the critical reaction to Le Viol du Vampire would “set a standard against which his future work (would be) judged” and that “people were either violently for or against him. There was no middle ground; he was either a charlatan or a genius.” Forty years after Le Viol du Vampire’s scandalous premiere, that middle ground has still yet to appear.

Le Viol du Vampire would act as Jean Rollin’s uncompromising introduction to an unsuspecting film world. It would introduce many of his often-repeated visual motives, his iconic and unforgettable way of using eroticism and would change the genre of Vampire Films forever. Talking to Peter Blumenstock on these creatures of the night (or in Rollin’s world, the day as well) that would haunt so many of his films, he had this to say, “A Vampire is like an animal, a predator-wild, emotional, naïve, primitive, sensual, not too concerned with logic, driven by emotions, but also very aesthetic and beautiful, and these are terms also often used when my films are being described.” Rollin, outside of being a wonderful filmmaker, is also someone who clearly understands his art and it is a wonderful thing to have quotes like these to savor when thinking about his work.

Le Viol du Vampire is available on a few different DVDS. The most readily available for Region 1 audiences is Redemption's disc, under the title The Rape of The Vampire. It is a bare bones release that offers an uncut print of the film in French with English subtitles with so-so print quality. The best version is undoubtedly Encore’s remarkable double-disc set which offers up a crisp print with a wealth of extras including the 32 page booklet, hundreds of stills, the audio commentary, interviews with Sieger, actor Alain-Yves Beaujour, composer Francois Tusques and a couple of deleted sequences that were victims of the censorship that plagued the film. It is, quite simply put, a stunning set for an important film.

For a director who seemed born to make color features, the striking black and white
Le Viol du Vampire feels like the perfect first feature for Jean Rollin. Poetic, mildly pretentious, daring, erotic and finally very haunting, Le Viol du Vampire is one of the most important (if under seen) works of the late sixties. It’s a startling and combative call to arms for people willing to follow an artist who has always stood very much alone.


The King Of Cool said...

Great write-up. For some reason I've never seen this film of his. I'm definitely adding it to my list of must see films. I've been planning to go back and watch some of his films that I have seen.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith...it's available through Netflix if you have that...thanks for the comments.

Steve Langton said...

This really was an extraordinary declaration of intent. While I prefer the first half, part II has many worthwhile moments and the project as a whole is beautifully shot.Your review has really captured this haunting debut feature and the essence of Rollin's art.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Steve for the terrific comments. I am glad you enjoyed it and I really appreciate the nice words. I prefer the first bit as well but the whole thing is really still smashing.
Thanks again...