Monday, October 27, 2008

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: Le Frisson des Vampires (1971)

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Jean Rollin’s third feature film Le Frisson des Vampires, alternately known as Thrill of the Vampires, Shiver of the Vampires and Sex and the Vampire, is one of the key works in his impressive filmography. A perfect melding of all of Rollin’s thematic obsessions, Le Frisson des Vampires is the director’s first masterpiece and one of his greatest achievements.

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La Vampire Nue had left Rollin in a bit of a financial crisis and an accident during editing had left him physically traumatized as well. Le Frisson des Vampires can be looked upon as one of the most important films in Rollin’s canon, as not only is one of his most enduring works but it would financially and perhaps spiritually get him out of a minor slump outside circumstances had put him in.

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Le Frisson des Vampires became a possibility due to a successful 1971 meeting between Rollin and producer and owner of Films Modernes Monique Natan. Natan had gained not a small amount of infamy in the French film community after turning down several of the most prominent French New Wave film makers for financing, so her faith and support artistically and financially for Rollin was a major coup for the young director. Natan wouldn’t only help with the financing of the film but would also share screenwriting credit with Rollin as well. Rollin would fondly remember in Encore’s booklet for Le Frisson des Vampires that he “had won over the fearsome Monique Natan” and that she in turn became one of his biggest supporters.

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While continuing and building on many of the main thematic obsessions that had appeared in his first two films, Le Frisson des Vampires would equally distance itself from them in that it is a much sparer and minimalist piece. While both Le Viol du Vampire and La Vampire Nue had large casts that made them at times a little more convoluted that they needed to be, Le Frisson des Vampires is made up of a cast of just a handful of actors and it is all the more successful for it.

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Working in a wonderfully evocative abandoned castle near Soissons Rollin and his crew had rented out, Le Frisson des Vampires is a stylistic triumph on every level imaginable. The photography and lighting of returning cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon is imaginative, inventive, and spectacularly beautiful as is the film’s hippie inspired costuming designs.

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The film also benefits greatly from the cutting skills of editor Olivier Gregoire, a newcomer to the Rollin crew. Rollin recalls in Encore’s booklet that the Gregoire was “a very stylish chief editor who ended up as a shaggy-haired hippie much like Sterling Hayden, to whom he bore a likeness.” The talented Gregoire would only work occasionally again after Frisson and only once more with Rollin on the adult feature La Comtesse Ixe in 1976. His work on Frisson, which matches both the ennui and fantastical worlds the film expertly presents, is extremely noteworthy especially in the films climatic moment where his cutting melds in perfectly with the exciting Acanthus score that drives the film.

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In front of the camera Rollin assembles one of the best casts of his career. Returning from La Vampire Nue are Michel Delahaye and the unforgettable Marie-Pierre (Pony) Castel. New to Rollins oeuvre are the shockingly beautiful Sandra Julien, New Wave actor Jacques Robiolles, production designer Jean-Marie Durand, stage actress Nicole Nancel and the former Cabaret dancer Dominique, seen here in her unforgettable screen debut. Rollin recalls in Encore’s booklet why he couldn’t get Catherine Castel to return for the film to work with her sister with “I wanted to have my twins for the film but only ‘Pony’ was available…to take her place Natalie Perrey had proposed a young Vietnamese woman (Kuelan Herce), very pretty but who later proved to be a formidable bitch.”

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With the cast in place and the castle decorated with many trinkets and decorations brought in by the crew and cast from Paris, Le Frisson des Vampires began shooting and Rollin notes in Virgins and Vampires that it would turn out to be a “much easier shoot for me” as “a certain routine had been established.” He would also credit the success of the film to Renon, whom he would note was “was entirely in tune with me, splashing color in the castle tower as if it were a candy cane.” Rollin’s extremely confident direction combined with Renon’s deliciously striking color scheme makes Le Frisson des Vampires one of the most extraordinary looking films of not only Rollin’s career, but from the early seventies in general.

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Taking visual and stylistic points from artists like Magritte and Paul Delvaux (Rollin would mention in Encore’s booklet that, “At the time I was influenced by paintings, mainly surrealist. I tried to compose unusual and strange pictorial frames.”), Le Frisson des Vampires indeed has an overwhelming painterly quality about it. Rollin would also pay homage again to French cinematic auteur Georges Franju, as well has hearken back to such stylistic mavericks as Fritz Lang and especially legendary silent filmmaker Louis Feuillade. Rollin recalls on Encore’s audio commentary to Frisson that the iconic Les Vampires director would have a huge impact on the film and that much of his casting was based on the fact that ”I am looking for Musidora (Les Vampires’ lead actress) through heroines of my films.”

While as Tohill and Tombs correctly point out in Immoral Tales that “Through the judicious use of color and lighting, the film transcends its (budgetary) limitations.”, it is worth remembering that Le Frisson des Vampires does actually start out in black and white. During his audio commentary Rollin flatly stated that he “loves black and white” and that the strange pre-credit opening was “a homage to the early days of cinema, the serial films and to silent movie” and that he wanted “to evoke the old scary movies of Universal.” He also notes perceptively that the famous opening credit sequence, that gives us our first look at the wild ride Renon was preparing to take us on, was designed to look black and white, with only the blood drenched lettering of the titles meant to alert the audience to the color to come.

Originally called ‘Le Sang d’un Oisean (The Blood of the Bird)”, Le Frisson des Vampires is Jean Rollin at his purest. Working as both a fantastical horror film and erotic love story, Frisson is at its most revelatory when it becomes a study of boredom, longing and frustration. Rollin presents life amidst the fantastic colors of Renon as a bit of bore for his participants (check the fascinating opening shot of Castel and Herce in the castle sitting silent at their dinner table) with only the arrival of the so called ‘life sucking vampire’ bringing any kind of real soul to the lives of his players.

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Calling the shooting in Virgins and Vampires a “great joy” Rollin injects Le Frisson des Vampires with the idea of “We loved doing things that you usually can’t do in movies.” (Audio commentary) and it is this joyously rebellious notion that makes Frisson such a wonder to behold. This isn’t a filmmaker making films for the masses, but instead a man with a singularly striking vision being as bold and as honest to himself as possible.

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Rollin admits in Virgins and Vampires that “All the things I have been reproached for, my visual ticks, were there; candelabras, transparent veils, cemeteries at night, chaste nudity, ruins and eerie lighting.” And yet somehow “Le Frisson des Vampires was a nice break for me: no jeering, no scandals, an almost normal course of events.”

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Daniel Bird astutely describes a key to Rollin’s style in his essay Fascination: Jean Rollin Cinematic Bird with “The locus of these dark fantasies remains a singular poetic image. The lithe female vampire whose coming ruptures the chimes of midnight as she slithers out of a clock in the bridal chamber of a lone virtuous virginal bride, whom she proceeds to seduce…the scene embodies the archetypes of the sexual sub-conscious…” It is indeed the images of the mysterious Dominique appearing from the grandfather clock in Sandra Julien’s room before seducing and ravishing her that remain the most famous moments in Le Frisson des Vampires. However it is the many moments of tension that arise between Julien and her new husband that are perhaps the most oddly resonate in the film. Not a filmmaker at all known for realistic touches, these silent moments of sad frustration between two young lovers are just as devastating in their own was as the film’s more noted surrealistic touches.

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Describing the film’s more haunting elements in Video Watchdog 59, Scott Grantham would point out how “It’s a testament to the director’s talent and imagination that it enhances, while echoing, concepts and imagery presented in his previous work without serving as a mere variation on a drained theme.” There is indeed something very similar and yet strikingly different about Le Frisson des Vampires when compared to Rollin’s earlier work. It has a real weightiness to it and the film’s layers and subtexts of boredom, isolation and loss become more apparent on repeated viewings. Grantham notes that while it is “Wildly experimental, it’s disconcerting-nay, discombobulating-imagery, upon a precursory glance, seems its greatest drawback but emerges, after multiple viewings, as perhaps its greatest strength.”

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The film is just filled with Rollin’s trademark touches, all of which are used to stunning effect. Tohill and Tombs point out that the strange and lovely “castle becomes itself a character in the film.” and Grantham correctly praised the casts efforts as well. Dominique is hauntingly strange and oddly ravishing while Sandra Julien (described by Rollin endearingly as “lovely and naïve”) is just exquisite, and looks as if she was created specifically for this feature. Also worth noting is the amount of improvising that Robiolles and Delahaye did which Rollin remembers in his audio commentary as making a “connection to new wave (that) made it seem avant-garde.”

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With its imaginative lighting (Renon brilliantly lights ever room differently) and some of the most vibrant blues and reds in cinema history, its memorable cast, smashing prog-rock score and stylish direction, Jean Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampires is the director’s first major masterpiece. While it mystifyingly was rejected or ignored again by the majority of the day’s critics, it is pointed out in Immoral Tales that it finally became “a small hit in France and (was) bought again for export.” While not an overwhelming financial success for Rollin, it did allow him to pay off most of the debts from La Vampire Nue and paved the way for his next film, the even more minimal and miraculous Requiem for a Vampire.

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Immoral Tales also offered this tragic and interesting footnote to the film. “(Producer) Monique Natan was pleased with the way Frisson had performed commercially and was keen to make another film with Rollin (Docteur Vampire with Sandra)…but before any work was done on the script, Natan died in a car crash and the project was abandoned.” Pity, as Julien only worked sporadically after and never appeared for Rollin again. Comparing her physical presence to future leading lady Brigitte Lahaie on the commentary, Rollin himself seems regretful he never got to shoot this remarkable beauty again.

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Home video versions of what Tohill and Tombs calls among “Rollin’s most assured and commercial films” have featured some differences worth noting. Something Weird Video released a version featuring a long extended graveyard sequence that Rollin never meant to be in the film that manages to throw off its very precise pacing in a most damaging way. Video Search of Miami’s so called ‘approved’ version featured a soft and overly dark print that is worth searching out just for Rollin’s camcorder filmed introduction. Redemption's DVD under the title Shiver of the Vampires features a nice print of the film but very little in the way of extras.

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While not one of their more loaded up special editions, Encore’s print is stunning and the supplements including the booklet, audio commentary, deleted scenes and slideshow are all extraordinary. Encore’s version is a fitting edition for what Rollin himself admits in their booklet is “For many...my most accomplished film.”

***No doves were harmed in the making of this film, or the writing of this post***

4 comments:

Keith said...

Great write-up. You did a really good job with this one. Plus I love the pictures you posted. I love this film. I think it's so beautiful visually. I love the sets and locales he used. It definitely adds to the atmosphere of the film. I really like the cast in this one. Rollin always found some very stunningly beautiful women for his movies.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I am glad you enjoyed it...I enjoyed compiling al this and writing on it. Easily one of his greatest films...

Steve Langton said...

Excellent review, with a ton of information that will increase my understanding and enjoyment of this film on my next viewing. The Encore DVD sounds wonderful, but for now, I'll have to move Rollin's work to the top of my rental list.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Steve,
I was so blown away by the film on this most recent viewing. It is such a wonderfully rich and rewarding work.