Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: Levres de Sang (Lips of Blood) 1975

Had a key financial backer not dropped out just a week before shooting commenced, Levres de Sang (Lips of Blood) might have turned out to be Jean Rollin’s greatest film. Forced to eliminate sections of the script, as well as losing an entire week of shooting time, Rollin still managed to deliver one of his most haunting works and it stands today as one of his key films.

The seeds of Lips of Blood came in 1975 when Rollin met a supportive producer named Jean-Marc Ghanassia. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs recalled in Immoral Tales that Ghanassia had, “seen and admired several of Rollin’s earlier films”, and that he wanted to finance the director’s next picture and give him much needed complete artistic control. It was just the kind of vote of confidence Rollin needed, and he set out to write a script that would act simultaneously as a summing up of his career so far, as well as a bold new chapter.

Rollin himself called Lips of Blood his, “best story”, in Virgins and Vampires and even in its compromised form this is still the case. Telling the tale of a man haunted by a meeting with a mysterious young woman as a youth, Lips of Blood is a remarkable work that delicately weaves memory, regret and loss in the way that only Jean Rollin in his prime could have.

The production was a troubled one from the get-go. Rollin wrote that after one of the producer’s dropped out that, “entire scenes were axed”, and that, “three scenes were replaced with a long off-screen explanation by the (character of) mother”. Hit with torrents of rain while shooting, the filming was hard on Rollin, his crew and his cast and at one point the director remembered that even his assistant admitted that the film would turn out to be, “an incoherent mess.”

Lips of Blood remarkably isn’t a mess though. It’s a flawed work that could have been much more but there is so much to admire that its mistakes are easy to forgive. Featuring one of the best casts he ever worked with (including a mixture of new and old players from Rollin’s canon) and the beautiful photography of future Cinema du Look icon, Jean-Francoise Robin, Lips of Blood is a disarming little film that captures the aura of childhood memories quite unlike any other.

Key to the casting are the solid two lead players, Jean-Loup Philippe and Annie Belle (billed here as Annie Briand) but the supporting players handle themselves nicely as well. This is especially true of frequent Rollin collaborator Nathalie Perrey, who delivers a haunting turn as the Philippe’s mother with a secret to hold onto. Rollin favorites The Castel Twins are thankfully on hand as well, and their death scene proves to be one of the most memorable moments in Rollin’s entire filmography. Lips of Blood also features several actresses who would become stars of France’s adult cinema shortly after, including Martine Grimaud, Claudine Beccarie and Sylvia Bourdon.

Despite the hardships of shooting the film (Rollin himself was nearly drowned at the beach of Dieppe but was thankfully saved by Philippe) Jean Rollin remembered that the locations were some of his favorites he had ever used. He wrote in Virgins and Vampires that the locations, “were breathtaking”, with specific favorites being, “the ruins of the Chateau Gaillard…the decimated old Belleville with its empty streets and boarded up house”, and especially, “the aquarium at the Trocadero”, a location Rollin remembered as being a, “childhood favorite.”

Featuring images that for Rollin meant his, “ideal vision of cinema”, Lips of Blood manages to recall both the vampirism that was so important to his older films as well as the eerie poetic feel of a work like The Iron Rose. In doing so, it operates as one of the ultimate Jean Rollin films and it’s hard to imagine any fans of the director’s oeuvre not being sucked completely in.

Much of Lips of Blood's power can be attributed to the young Jean-Francoise Robin whom Rollin said of in Encore’s Lips of Blood booklet was, “very efficient in crisis.” Robin’s commanding lighting and photography give the film a fittingly magical and stately look. The scenes especially of Philippe’s childhood memory between Annie Belle and himself (played by Rollin’s own son, Serge) are extremely compelling and one can see the beginnings of the look Robin would perfect less than a decade later on Jean-Jacques Beineix’s stunning Diva.

Lips of Blood does slip occasionally during its running time due mostly to the financial pressures Rollin was facing. A few scenes play out too long and the work as a whole has a slightly unbalanced feel about it. Wheras Rollin’s most masterful films are deliberately slow and hypnotic, Lips of Blood is at times slow and plodding. The score, credited to relative novice Didier William Lepauw, is also not as strong as what Rollin fans are used to, although it is serviceable.

The film was released in Paris in the early summer of 1975 and, despite getting some critical kudos, was a real commercial disaster. French film fans were turning out in droves for the soft and hard erotic films that were populating theaters, and they had little time for such a subtle and haunting work based on childhood nostalgia and memory.

A financially strapped Jean-Marc Ghanassia asked if Rollin could make any commercial concessions to help the film turn a profit and Rollin shot, “two long X scenes” in, “acknowledgement of the confidence”, the young producer had shown him. The later release of this version, known as Suck Me Vampire, was a sad end for such a daring and genuine art film. Rollin himself would call it, “the end of Rollinian vampires…”

Lips of Blood has been released several times on DVD, most recently on a very nice special edition from Redemption. Encore’s beautiful box set is the most controversial of all their releases as it is slightly overly cropped. However the extras are just splendid and they include the beautiful booklet, a partial commentary from Rollin, the short film Les Amours Jaunes, a slideshow, and best of all interviews with Philippe, Perrey, Cathy Castel, Serge and Jean Rollin. It’s a beautiful three-disc set that, minor framing issues aside, is a real winner.

Lips of Blood is one of Jean Rollin’s most beautiful works and, even though it is finally a bit compromised, it contains some of the greatest moments in his iconic canon. It would sadly mark the end of an era for Rollin though, and it would take him another three years before delivering his next proper film, the bloody and quite audacious fan favorite Grapes of Death.


Keith said...

Great write-up. Love the pics. Never seen this one though, but I always have wanted to. I'll definitely have to try to check it out.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
The new Redemption DVD of it is terrific.