Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: Les Demoniaques (1974)

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More than any other film he ever made, Jean Rollin’s 1974 feature Les Demoniaques (The Demoniacs) shows the director’s absolute love and admiration for the adventure classics that he grew up with. Rollin himself recalled in the film’s audio commentary on Encore’s box-set that he was looking to capture, “the ambiance of old adventure films” that he saw as a child, especially the “pirate films’ that had captured his youthful imagination so much.

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Following La Rose De Fer’s lead of abandoning the Vampire genre he was most known for, The Demoniacs tells a simple but effective tale of a band of rogue pirates who are haunted by a couple of lost young girls they raped and murdered in the film's opening scenes. Part ghost story, part erotic adventure with bits of dark comedy thrown in for good measure, the self proclaimed ‘Expressionist’ film The Demoniacs is quite unlike anything else in Rollin’s filmography, and yet it is undeniably a Jean Rollin movie.

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A failure at the time, The Demoniacs has become one of Jean Rollin’s most popular films, with several images of lead actress Joëlle Coeur taken from the work becoming some of the most representative of Rollin’s career. Truthfully though, The Demoniacs was a plagued production (that Rollin would mention in Encore’s booklet actually caused him to go into the hospital due to exhaustion for a two week stay after shooting wrapped) and the fact that it came out so well is a tribute to Rollin’s vision and artistic merit more than anything else.

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Fighting the producers and distributors of the film from day one who demanded a lower than usual budget for what was one of Rollins most ambitious scripts (Rollin mentioned in Encore’s booklet that the only thing General Films cared about was indeed saving money), struggling with several cast members he didn’t want, and dealing with a usually more than reliable cinematographer whose personal problems were getting the best of him, Jean Rollin had his back up against the wall while shooting The Demonaics and there are moments in the flawed but masterful film where this is evident. Nowhere near as perfect in its execution as works like Le Frisson des Vampires or Requiem for a Vampire, The Demoniacs finally seems to succeed by its sheer uncompromising nature. Once again, this isn’t a film made for the masses but, like Rollin’s best work, a picture made by an artist unwilling to compromise his own unique and singular vision no matter the struggles facing him.

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Originally called Les Diablesses in its written form, which Rollin, according to Encore's booklet, had to change after he found out the “copyright wasn’t free”, The Demoniacs is very much the ‘expressionistic’ film he set out to make, although one wishes a larger budget would have been afforded to the director so his complete vision could have been realized. Abandoning any semblance of reality in its ninety minute running time, and using the destroyed and pillaged ship as a warped and fractured companion for the mindset of the drunken and brawling characters Rollin populates the film with, the director manages a lot on General’s tiny budget and during its best moments The Demoniacs achieves the kind of narcotic dreamlike quality that can be found in the best of films that are often placed in the expressionism category.

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One of the main problems handed to Rollin during the production of The Demoniacs, and one of the main things wrong with the film, is the unavailability of the much needed Castel Twins for the parts of the film's avenging ghosts. In their place producer Lionel Wallman brought Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier, two totally inexperienced young women who fail to ever really connect to Rollin’s highly stylized world at any point during The Demoniacs. Rollin still seems bitter about it, although he admits on Encore’s commentary that he liked Lone, and Hermenier would turn out to be one of the most difficult actors Rollin ever had to work with on a set. It’s hard to watch The Demoniacs today and not wish that The Castel Twins would have been available for the parts as they would have been absolutely haunting.

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Of course, Wallman didn’t have a lot of options in 1974 in regards to the casting of a Jean Rollin film. Rollin recalled in Encore’s booklet that at this point he was, “the bete-noire of the cinema” and to many people’s eyes, “the devil” and more often than not his offers to young actors were ignored. Rollin, in the film’s commentary, went so far as to recall that his reputation was so bad at this point that there were even rumors that a young actress on one of his sets would end kidnapped or murdered, so with this in mind one can be perhaps a little more forgiving of Wallman’s blunder in regards to Lone and Hermenier.

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Thankfully making up for the the two miscast young girls is Joëlle Coeur, seen here making her second of three appearances in a Rollin film, delivering one of the great performances in all of the director’s canon. Seeming to understand the silent like performance style of overstatement perfectly, Coeur delivers a fascinating and hypnotic performance that finds the perfect balance between the utterly sublime and almost ridiculous.

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Joining her in her endeavors are Willy Braque (whom Rollin would remember as being, “a very strange guy” and “a little paranoid”in European Trash Cinema 8) and John Rico, who found a style of, “special overacting” that Rollin said really appealed to him in Encore’s booklet.

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Running alongside the film’s many scenes on the beach with the destroyed ship are a
series of intriguing moments set in a tavern that achieve a real bawdy and downright drunken feel separate from Rollin’s usually more poetic touches. Keep a look out in these scenes for Louise Dhour, playing once again a musician, and popular cult figure Monica Swinn, an actress who would become one of the most resonate figures in Jess Franco’s cinema throughout the seventies. Also appearing in the film are Mireille Dargent, playing the clown character she has perfected by this point, and the devilish duo of Ben Zimet (who had appeared in Rollin’s early short Les Pay Loins) and Miletic Zivomir.

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It is the ship itself that is perhaps, outside of Coeur, the film’s most arresting character. Rollin recalled in ETC that, “there was an old shipwreck which I discovered a long time ago and I absolutely wanted to use that for my film.” The ship wasn’t easy to shoot though as he recalled, “it was really hard and dirty work to move it from one beach to the other where we did the picture” but the effort paid off as the wreckage gives the low budget film a much bigger feel than it would have had without it.

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The scenes on the beach with the ship, despite their success in the final film, gave Rollin and his crew numerous headaches during the production. This was especially true for brilliant cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon who really struggled lighting the complicated scenes, and whose personal troubles were making him harder and harder to work with. While they would work together again, The Demoniacs sadly remains the final major collaboration between Rollin and Renon on a film, ending an era of astonishing work for both of them. The film would also mark the last time Rollin worked with composer Pierre Raph, who delivers one of his most exciting and noteworthy scores with The Demoniacs.

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Despite all of the problems facing Rollin during the production, The Demoniacs is a really winning film that stands as one of his most enduring works. Rollin mentioned in his introduction to the film in Virgins and Vampires that he wanted to make a film that was a tribute to, “the dark lyricism of the German cinema before 1933” and to my eyes he more than succeeded. Filled with allusions to Fritz Lang (Rollin has mentioned his love for MoonFleet time and time again) and other icons of early German cinema, The Demoniacs is a powerful, if slightly flawed, ode to a type of cinema that had all but been abandoned by 1974 when the film premiered in Paris.

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The Demoniacs is clearly one of the most beloved Jean Rollin productions, although in hindsight I have stepped back slightly from it as my admiration for Les Frisson des Vampires and Le Rose du Fer has grown, and two of the best pieces written on it can be found in issue 58 of Video Watchdog and Tohill and Tomb’s Immoral Tales. Scott Grantham’s excellent piece in VW successfully points out The Demoniacs connection to not only German Expressionism but also to epic Hollywood productions like Demille’s 1942 film Reap the Wild Wind. Grantham also calls The Demoniacs one of Rollin’s most “challenging films” and has less problems with the casting and look of the film than I do. His piece is typical of the kind of quality works you can always find in VW and should be sought out by fans of the film. Tohill and Tombs really love the production as well and spend as much time on it in their chapter on Rollin in Immoral Tales as any of his other films. They offer an excellent history and analysis of the picture and argue that the film's problems (the two girls, constant script rewrites) finally work in its favor. They also do a great job in showing that this film was indeed the end of an era of sorts for Rollin, whom would soon be forced to make more films under the Gentil and Xavier pseudonyms to stay financially afloat.

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Rollin himself seems proud if a little hesitant about the film on Encore’s commentary. He finally admits that he wishes he had a movie under his belt that contains, “the genius” of something like Bertrand Tavernier’s La Fille de d’Artagnan (1994) starring Sophie Marceau, although of course many of his fans would like to argue with him that he already does.

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The Demoniacs has recently been re-released in the States and Britain by Redemption DVD in what I have heard is a sharp and nice looking presentation. Encore’s 3 disc box-set (currently on sale at Xploited) is the way to go for Rollin addicts though and it includes a lovely widescreen print, the booklet, the commentary, a slide-show, Les Pay Loins and an interview with Willy Braque. Encore’s set provides a fitting home to one of Jean Rollin’s most enduring if imperfect classics.

6 comments:

gilligan said...

Great post. I really enjoyed the previous one on Joelle Coeur as well.

I don't typically go for the "artsy" type of film... but for some reason this one had such a dreamlike quality to it, that it kept my attention... the beautiful Joelle Coeur certainly helped in that regard.

I never thought about how the proliferation of the hardcore film industry would kill the careers of so many of these beautiful sirens of sexploitation. Very interesting!

MEDUSA FANZINE said...

I've just published this (http://medusafanzine.blogspot.com/2009/01/affiches-jean-rollin_25.html) on my blog. It's one of the french poster from Les démoniaques.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Gilligan for the very nice comments. Much appreciated and I hope you keep enjoying the blog.

Thanks Medusa Fanzine,
I am getting ready to head over and check out the poster. Thanks for the link.

Keith said...

Hey Jeremy. Wow! This was an incredibly well done and fascinating post. I love all the pictures you posted from the film. I love old adventure books and movies myself. I thought Rollin did a really good job here. It is a shame he didn't have the budget he wanted and needed. It saddens me that so many crappy directors get all the money they want, but someone like him couldn't. I wish he hadn't had the other trouble he did. He still made a wonderful film. It's definitely one of the best he did in my opinion.

Out of the lion's mouth... said...

Demoniaques was the first of the Encore sets I acquired. For quite a while it was the least favourite of the Jean Rollin movies I knew - I initally found it crude and garish, the pirates were like cartoon characters. But repeated viewings have gradually broken down my dislike of it. It's still unmistakeably a Rollin film, we still have a crumbling ruin, and an enigmatic clown (how shocking it was to see the clown in La Rose De Fer - the movie that first turned me onto Rollin), and the sea - though it wasn't the usual Dieppe beach we Rollin fans all recognise and love.
Anyway, another great post, Jeremy, and a superb blog altogether.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much for the continuing comments. I had trouble writing this one so I am glad to know some folks enjoyed it.