Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: Les Pays Loins (1965)

Between 1958’s Les Amours Jaunes and 1965’s Les Pays Loins, Jean Rollin would shoot two short films (Ciel de Cuivre and Un Cheval Pour Deux) and would begin work on a feature (L’itineraire Marin) that would never be completed. I have unfortunately not seen the two completed shorts, which is why I am skipping ahead in our story to the rather remarkable Les Pays Loins, a sixteen minute work that shows Rollin stylistically and thematically gearing up for his famed feature films that would begin rolling out just a few years later.

Les Pays Loins (The Distant Lands) got its start, title wise, as an unpublished novel Rollin had completed in the early sixties. He recalled to Peter Blumenstock in Virgins and Vampires that the book failed to find a release due to the fact that the publisher, Eric Lasfeld, had died before it got to the printing stages. A frustrated Rollin turned his attention back to the idea of filmmaking and began shooting Les Pays Loins. Since Rollin admitted the short “just used the title” of his unpublished book to Blumenstock, and that it had “nothing to do with (the) novel” which he recalled “was basically written as an essay.", it is hard to say what thematic elements the book and unfinished film share.

Two facts are well worth pointing out though in regards to Rollin in this period. One is his increasing distancing from the French New Wave that had proved so popular in the late fifties and early sixties. Rollin mentioned to Blumenstock that he had come in contact with most of the movement’s shining lights at the Henri Langlois Cinematteque but he stated that The New Wave “was not exactly my cup of tea.” So, Les Pays Loins can be looked upon as yet another major artistic step in Rollin separating himself from the popular and acclaimed cinema of the time.

The second item worth noting in regards to Les Pays Loins is the fact that Rollin had shot a documentary on Spain’s controversial dictator Generallisimo Francisco Franco just a year before in 1964. This work, entitled Vivre En Espagne (Life in Spain) showed clearly Rollin’s position as a member of the left, something he admitted to Blumenstock. It is this attitude that fuels Les Pays Loins, a film that slyly confronts many of the racist attitudes in France prevalent in the mid sixties especially towards the Algerian people.

The shot on 35 MM Les Pays Loins is a challenging work and an accomplished one that stylistically shows how much Rollin had developed as a filmmaker in the seven years since Les Amours Jaunes. A professional piece of filmmaking highlighted by Rollin’s remarkable sense of space (something that would he would use expertly in all of his films to come), Les Pays Loins is a lovely looking black and white production that is at times mysterious, moving and never less than intriguing.

Focusing on one of the major thematic obsessions relevant in many of his greatest films, that of isolation and the idea of being lost, Les Pays Loins tells the story of a French couple seemingly trapped in a strange city surrounded by people they can’t understand. It would be a storyline Rollin would return to later in such works a Night of the Hunted and Lost in New York, and a subject that would haunt many of his works ranging from Requiem For a Vampire to Two Orphan Vampires. Few filmmakers can capture the feeling of wandering loss like Rollin and Les Pays Loins seems to be ground zero for this striking pattern that connects many of Rollin's greatest works.

Rollin states in the booklet accompanying Encore’s release of The Demoniaques that filming on Les Pays Loins took place on “Saturdays and Sundays” at “the old Belleville District”, and watching the film today it is hard to imagine anyone capturing the fading and at times destroyed area any better that Rollin does here. From the opening frames on we are treated to an astonishing snapshot of what this district, that doesn’t exist anymore, looked like in the mid sixties and Rollin doesn’t shy away from presenting the most beautiful sections to the most run down. Les Pays Loins is a remarkably sensitive piece of work, one that simultaneously highlights the loss of the community as well as its obviously beautiful aspects.

Recalling his small crew in The Demoniaques booklet, Rollin states that his friend Pascal Fardoulis played the main actor while “Alain-Yves Beaujour was working as assistant…and Jean-Denis Bonan (was) the script girl.” He also recalled the set would be filled at different times with colleagues and friends including the singer Ben Zimet, the writer Clement Lepidis (who would bring his son Roger) and Rollin’s future literary collaborator Nicolas Devil. One gets the idea that the filming of Les Pays Loins was a collaborative effort made by a group of friends, artists and family members, all held together by the vision of Jean Rollin and a shared passion for cinema. Rollin would state in the Encore booklet that “At that time, we could all believe in the cinema” and it is that thought that controls every adventurous frame of Les Pays Loins, a well thought out and adult work that is as celebratory as it is lamenting.

The IMDB lists the cinematographers of Les Pays Loins as Gerard de Battista and Georges Delauney, but the Encore booklet contradicts this and lists Gilbert Gibdourney as the man responsible for the film’s striking look. My guess is that the look was achieved though a combination of several efforts with the veteran Delauney (listed as technical consultant) offering suggestions on how to accomplish the rather complex ideas in regards to lighting and framing Rollin was attempting. On Encore's Audio Commentary for the film, Rollin states it was in fact Battista who performed most of the cinematography, and he praises the look of the film he helped to accomplish.

Joining Fardoulis (who would later appear in Rollin’s second feature The Nude Vampire before his untimely death) are the mysterious and lovely Julie (who Rollin in the Encore booklet admits everyone on the set was infatuated with but who has since fell very much from view) and in a smaller role is Ben Zimet, an actor who would later feature in Rollin’s The Demoniaques as well as Lars Von Trier’s Europa. The cast member who has had the most credits though is Bernard Papineau, a talented actor who has worked with Claude Chabrol several times and would appear in Rollin’s Night of the Hunted and The Runaways in 1981. Tragically the young actress who appeared in the apartment scene (actually Rollin's father's apartment) named Nadine Ninio died shortly after the film wrapped due to a drug overdose.

Rollin recalls on Encore's commentary that his film that centered on a "strange universe" where "everyone speaks different languages" failed to find any sort of distribution in the mid sixties, and wasn't seen by the public until a retrospective four decades later. Encore's excellent The Demoniaques box set marked the first time the film had been available for the general public and, along with the audio commentary, it also includes a photo gallery. The short film also appears as an extra on Redemption's import Lost in New York disc as well as their Region One The Iron Rose DVD, although I have heard certain copies of this disc have a glitch at the end.

Finally the film includes a fantastic jazz based score that is simultaneously catchy and haunting. I have not been able to determine who composed and performed the remarkable music as neither the Encore liner notes mention it nor does the IMDB.


Robert Monell said...

Great work, Jeremy. I'm interested in seeing these shorts. Look forward to your future blogs on JR. I'll be adding a link to here to my blog in a few days.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Robert. I really hope you enjoy the blog and I appreciate the support...

The King Of Cool said...

Great blog post. I've never seen this. I've really not seen any of his real early work. It's great to learn about what he was doing.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks's a really terrific short film.

Soukesian said...

Rollin is a visionary director, and a true Surrealist. It's marvelous to see his work given the respect it deserves here. This piece gives a fascinating insight into his early career: Rollin, a revolutionary? Of course! We knew it all along!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Soukesian for the wondeful comments. I hope you enjoy the blog and continue to find value in it. Thanks again...