Saturday, December 20, 2008
Perhaps no other major production in Jean Rollin's career has divided fans more than 1973's La Rose de fer. The film, known alternately as The Iron Rose and as The Crystal Rose, is seen by some as one of Rollin's greatest achievements, a haunting poetic production that shows the director at his minimal best, while others, turned off by Rollin's abandoning of his usual Vampiric elements, find the film a failure, and at best a bore. Regardless of one's opinion of the work, two things are for certain, The Iron Rose is one of Jean Rollin's most personal projects, and its failure in 1973 changed the direction of his career drastically.
Jean Rollin was looking for a change in early 1973 after a string of films cornered him into being known as just a maker of erotic vampire films. He recalled to Peter Blumenstock in the pages of Video Watchdog and Virgins and Vampires that, "it was very important for (him) to make a very serious, profound film, far away from the softcore stuff" he had become infamous for. He would go onto to recall that The Iron Rose began life as short story he published earlier in a French publication and, like Rollin's best work, the film retains that strong literary backbone throughout its extremely slim running time.
The Iron Rose, which Rollin admitted to Blumenstock was destined to be a "commercial disaster" from the outset, was financed completely by the ambitious filmmaker even though he knew he, "would never get (the money) back." The fact that Rollin was risking complete financial ruin with a project destined for critical and popular failure makes him a brave, admirable and downright inspiring figure in an industry known for its greed and all around obsession on the dollar.
Of course, Jean Rollin is a smart man and a deal he made before beginning the four week production schedule on The Iron Rose eased his financial troubles but it did cause a shift in his filmmaking career. Rollin admitted to Blumenstock that, "with a safety net in mind" he accepted a deal with Impex Films to, "direct six or seven hardcore films in the next couple of years" under the Gentil and Xavier pseudonyms. So essentially, Rollin was willing to possibly sacrifice the next few years of his artistic life for The Iron Rose, which he told Blumenstock was a project he, "loved very much" and that it was far and away his, "most personal effort."
The Iron Rose is among the most minimal modern films one could possibly imagine. Outside of an opening party sequence and a few scattered one scene appearances throughout the work, the film only features two characters. The storyline, centering on two young lovers finding themselves lost in a huge expansive old cemetery, is so spare that it is nearly non-existent. In his introduction to the film in Virgins and Vampires Rollin admitted that what interested him about the film was the notion of, "a woman's dramatic self-destruction", and that ultimately it was, "a dark and desperate film." Less a successful modern narrative film and more of a poignant tragic poetic work more akin to silent cinema, The Iron Rose is a remarkable work that grows more and more resonate with each passing year. Like Lou Reed's Berlin, that also came out in 1973, The Iron Rose is a work made by an artist not looking to satisfy the time it is in, but is instead looking to transcend it.
Shot in the near deserted city of Amiens, production on The Iron Rose was fraught with difficulties. Rollin had problems throughout the shoot with male star Hughes Quester and was never fully happy with female star Francoise Pascal, even though she finally turns in one of the greatest performances in any Jean Rollin film. The cemetery Rollin chose proved to be an inspired choice though and he recalled in Virgins and Vampires that he, "fun shooting in the cemetery. Wherever we put the camera we immediately found an angle" and that, "a sense of depth was created in the environment of tombs and old iron crosses." He also pointed out that the film proved to be perfect for regular collaborator Jean-Jacques Renon who found the work like, "an animated painting."
While the film features basically only Quester and Pascal, a few familiar Rollin actors pop up. Michele Delesalle can be briefly seen and Requiem for a Vampire co-star Mireille Dargent appears playing what very well might be the ghost of her character in Requiem. Rollin himself also pops ups in a cameo as does regular behind the scenes collaborator Nathalie Perrey, delivering a performance Rollin recalled as very 'moving'. Regarding Nathalie's tearful performance, Rollin pointed out that the tears were apparently for real as she, "had just learned of (French actor) Rene Chauffard’s death" and the film's dedication to him reflects this fact.
Rollin completed his masterful film within the four week shooting schedule and decided to present it to the public at the 2nd Annual Convention of the Fantastique in Paris in mid 1973. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs wrote on the film's disastrous reception in their essential book Immoral Tales. The film historian's wrote, "The place was packed with French Horror fans" and that Rollin knew he was in trouble when, "The film had hardly begun before the walk-outs commenced. Pretty soon it was obvious that he had a disaster on his hands." The problems didn't end with the intital screening as the critics had their knives sharpened for Rollin and that, "Cinematographe recounted how both he and his film had been roundly booed by the audience, in a way that the writer had never seen a director booed before." Tohill and Tombs went on to write that, "Rollin was devastated" and, "for the next few years Rollin was unable to find backers for any of his personal projects."
I must admit that the more I revisit The Iron Rose, the closer it comes to becoming my favorite Jean Rollin film. It is technically the most imperfect of his early works, with several continuity problems plaguing it, but despite these relatively minor issues I find the film to be an extraordinary and powerful work fueled by Rollin's unbelievable dedication and artistic skill, Jean-Jacques Renon's bold lighting, the eerie and striking score of Pierre Raph, and the strange and quite majestic leading performance of Francoise Pascal. Rollin's film of, "a passionate love that can not be found" is one of his most daring and is admittedly not for everyone. I suspect though that the absolute heart and spirit of Jean Rollin as an artist can be found in the sequences of Francoise Pascal alone in this film, deliriously lost and entranced by something from the past...something that we perhaps cannot see, but that Jean Rollin is able to make us feel.
The Iron Rose has unfortunately not been given the special edition treatment awarded to many of Jean Rollin's other key works. It is available from Redemption in the US in a fairly solid if unspectacular print, and several European versions are out as well, although none of them to my knowledge feature any real film specific extras.