Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: La Vampire Nue (1970)

Look up pretty much any review of Jean Rollin’s second feature, 1970’s La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire), and the one word that seems to always appear when describing it is ‘bizarre’. Indeed, ‘bizarre’ does seem to be the absolute perfect word for the film, a surreal and extremely odd science fiction vampire picture that sees Rollin reinforcing the confrontational direction his career had taken with Le Viol du Vampire the year before.

Ironically, La Vampire Nue started out as Rollin’s idea of a much more traditional film than Le Viol du Vampire. Rollin would recall to Peter Blumenstock in Video Watchdog 31 (and Virgins and Vampires) that with La Vampire Nue he “wanted to make a well done, traditional mystery film” and that he realizes “Looking back on it now, (that) it’s not a classical film at all.” Following that amusing understatement Rollin would later write in Virgins and Vampires that “La Vampire Nue was conceived as a mystery film” but that the “very strong ideas” were “not very well executed.”

Rollin is perhaps being too hard on himself with that last thought, as La Vampire Nue is actually quite a wonderful production. Admittedly not as powerful or as ultimately memorable as the two features that ended up following it, it’s still a resonate work marked with some of Rollin’s most iconic imagery and an assured style that was not totally there yet in Le Viol du Vampire. As Rollin would say in his Virgins and Vampires introduction to the film, “By the time my second film rolled around I was a little wiser.” And indeed that really shows.

La Vampire Nue, despite being completely off the wall, is actually very much a more traditional work that the two part Le Viol du Vampire. Unlike that freewheeling improvised first film, Rollin’s second outing started out life on paper, with a script the director penned with Serge Moati. While the final product veered fairly far from the original treatment, due to budgetary reasons and Rollin’s jazz like attitudes towards filmmaking, the idea of making a more straightforward narrative production comes through in La Vampire Nue.

Tombs and Cohill would give the plot of La Vampire Nue a go in their wonderful Immoral Tales. Their synopsis seemed an ideal thing to reprint partially here:

“The story of La Vampire Nue involves a bizarre suicide cult, a mysterious man known only as The Master, weird experiments with phials of colored blood, and a dimensional gap into another world.”

Even better was their attempt at identifying the strange brilliance of the film’s final moments, which are among the most memorable in all of Rollin’s filmography:

“It remains remarkably true to its original conception as a film around the idea of mystery…even the ending when an explanation is given for all the mysterious events, is successfully undercut. The film suddenly takes off into Science Fiction territory and, as Rollin said later, leaves the way open for a second part to begin just as the first one ends.”

It is indeed the weird Science Fiction line that runs through La Vampire Nue that separates it from most of his other upcoming Vampire epics. Although it’s not totally separate as its obvious fascination with the blooming hippie communal culture, and its trappings, absolutely do connect it with Rollin’s next film, 1971’ astonishing Les Frissons des Vampires.

The film also continues the trend set with Le Viol du Vampire of Rollin wearing his influences clearly on his sleeve, with Franju’s Judex being the work that is alluded to over and over again. Daniel Bird would write on the similarities between the two auteur's in his Fascination: Jean Rollin Cinematic Bird by noting that “Franju, like Rollin, was deeply influenced by the style of the past, especially the serials of Feuillade which he lovingly parodied in his Judex. Rollin has acknowledged Judex as the source for the animal mask cult in La Vampire Nue.” Rollin himself would speak further on the influence of Franju to Blumenstock when he recalled “Of course Judex inspired me a lot, and also the concept of surrealism in general.”

The main thing that sets La Vampire Nue apart from Le Viol du Vampire is its astonishing color palate. Rollin is one of the supreme masters at the use of color and La Vampire Nue’s place as his first color feature automatically makes it one of his most important. Tohill and Tombs correctly note that the film’s look derives from “pulp comics and old paperback covers” though surprisingly Rollin had this to say about the look of his color features to Blumenstock, “I often hear that my use of color bears a certain signature. I never thought of that while I was making these films.” Regardless, Rollin’s use of color is instantly recognizable and La Vampire Nue’s memorable look would be soon perfected in the films to come.

Working with Rollin for the first time on La Vampire Nue is talented cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon and the fruitful collaboration (which I will write more on in the future) was apparently not always a harmonious one. Rollin, recalling the film’s bold look, mentioned to Blumenstock that “I am responsible for the way my films are lighted, but I also had big problems with my director of photography, Jean-Jacques Renon, because he had a vision of his own which he wanted to realize.” Still, problems aside La Vampire Nue is a gorgeous production (unfortunately marred by Redemptions sub-par Region 1 DVD) and Renon’s place behind the camera was a noteworthy one.

In front of the camera are several familiar faces to Jean Rollin lovers including the legendary Castel Twins making their very memorable debut, Olivier Rollin and Ursule Pauly. Most memorable though is lovely Caroline Cartier, who proves to be one of the most striking of the many female heroines Rollin has had over the years.
La Vampire Nue finally feels a little fragmented though and it stands as one of Rollin’s middle tier works. Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review of the film that while the picture is “a key work in his filmography” and that “The first half works exceedingly well, frequently evoking the sense of exposure and danger felt in dreams…” but “The second half , which is more narrative driven than fluid, is somewhat less successful”. It’s an accurate statement as certainly the film’s haunting early shots of Cartier running from Judex like masked men is certainly more resonate and successful than some of the film’s later moments, such as strange extended sequence between Olivier Rollin and a nude model that feels more like a concession to the film’s producer for more skin rather than a necessary piece of the film’s striking and mostly masterful dreamlike presentation.

The film does finds a perfect balance in its final moments between something completely nonsensical and something downright profound. Lucas notes the influence of the events leading up to the film with this thought provoking reaction, “The greatest oddity of this production is that its most dreamlike passages were written consciously, while its historical parallels-it was filmed in the aftermath of the Paris student riots in 1968, thus explaining the outraged tone of generational conflict-were unintentional, hence subconscious!”

La Vampire Nue, despite some problems, is a striking production and as Tohill and Tombs point out “a great leap forward” for Rollin and his most unique brand of cinema. From the unbelievably cool S&M inspired splendor of Jio Berk’s costume work, to the eye popping color design, to Yvon Geraud’s lovely minimalistic score, La Vampire Nue is the near masterpiece Rollin would deliver just a year later. It is also a film that features a couple of the most mesmerizing (and almost excruciatingly long) single takes Rollin ever mounted, and in these moments La Vampire Nue seems even more confrontational to the ideas of a traditional cinema than Le Viol du Vampire.

The film was greeted in much the same way most of Rollin’s most poetic and haunting works have been. He recalled in Virgins and Vampires that, “The screenings were punctuated by laughter and sarcastic remarks” and that he was particularly hurt by the reception that greeted the ending of the film due to the fact that “This (vampire appearing from box on beech) is one of the most unusual images of my cinema, and despite the whistling and heckling it remains dazzling for me.”

The film’s poor reception must have been particularly hard for Rollin who had risked financial ruin finishing the film and, on top of that, had been involved in a hit and run accident shortly after shooting wrapped. His stories of struggling to edit the film alone while injured in the Virgins and Vampires book are simultaneously funny and poignant, and show just how much he was willing to give for his films.

La Vampire Nue is available in several different home video versions; unfortunately none of them are a full-blown special editions. VSOM put a terribly blurry ‘authorized’ VHS release in the mid nineties that is worth seeking out for collectors due to Rollin’s video introduction (sadly one of the only ones I don’t have in my collection).

The British DVD reportedly has an interview with Rollin, but I have not seen this version so I can’t comment on it. The Region 1 DVD is passable but suffers from a less than stellar visual presentation and even worse only features the English dub of the film. Hopefully someday, if Encore decides to do more Special editions in the future, La Vampire Nue will be given the proper attention it deserves.


Steve Langton said...

Have yet to see Judex (it's now on my rental list), but got an awful lot out of your review. While this film is a little uneven in places, it did serve notice that something very special was beginning to take shape. Great point re Rollin's jazz-like flourishes. This is something he and Franco have in common, and is very much part of their makeup.

Keith said...

Bizarre is the right word. This film had me scratching my head when I first saw it. I wasn't sure how I felt about it. It's not one of my favorite films of his, but I have enjoyed it the more I see it. Your postings on it have me wanting to see it again. Great shots you posted.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks to you look at Les Frissons des Vampires is getting ready to begin...hope you bothe njoy it.

E.K. Wimmer said...

Great review.