Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Jean Rollin Top-Ten List by Daniel Orion Davis


A great big congratulations to Spellbound Cinema's Daniel Orion Davis for being the second entry in my Jean Rollin Personal Top-Ten giveaway!  Daniel really knocked it out of the park with his list and I know all fellow Rollin fans will find this detailed post a wonderful example as to just how much Rollin means to his most dedicated fans.  Thanks so much to Daniel for this wonderful piece and I hope you enjoy your prize.  Keep those lists coming!


1) The Bond of Sisters

With the exception of the beach at Dieppe (see entry #2), there is no
image more frequently returned to than that of a pair of young girls.
Obviously, the Castel Twins are the most memorable embodiment of this
archetype in Rollin's work, but the characters reappear far more
frequently than he was able to with with Marie-Pierre and Catherine.
Lost in New York, Fascination, Living Dead Girl, The Demoniacs and (of
course) Two Orphan Vampires all feature this dynamic without the
participation of a Castel. Whether the girls experience together an
adventure or a shared tragedy, it is clear that Rollin believes they
are empowered by their relationship to each other. Arguably the most
moving tragedy in Rollin's oeuvre results from the separation of such
a pair; both the narrative and the emotional resonance of Living Dead
Girl
revolve around the disruption of a childhood bond and the girls
are never truly Lost in New York until they are separated from each
other.

2) The Romance of Travel

No Rollin fan can doubt that a boyhood trip to Dieppe had a profound
effect on young Jean's thinking. Here at once was a new stage on
which his fantasies would be set for the rest of his life. Not only
did this create a life-long love affair with the beach at Dieppe, but
it seemed to impress upon Rollin the belief that travel was an
inherently romantic pursuit, filled with opportunities for adventure
and transformation. From one of his earliest shorts, Les Pays Loin,
in which the peculiarities of unfamiliar language and geography seem
to cause the protagonists to doubt their own identity and history, to
later films like Lost in New York and Sidewalks of Bangkok (in which
Rollin's romantic visions of these foreign cities define the
narrative) travel, in the Rollinade, is an opportunity for an
experience that is simultaneously more authentic and more fantastic.

3) The Importance of Memory

One of the most tragic things you can experience in a Rollin narrative
is the loss of your memory -- whether that be the memory of your
personal history or your connection to a shared cultural history.
Without memory, we are automatons, mere consumers. Memory allows us
to attribute meaning, make connections and bond with others. In Night
of the Hunted
, even a fabricated memory can have the power to restore
some value to an otherwise meaningless existence, while in The Living
Dead Girl
memories restore the humanity to the title character who is
otherwise just a void, a gnawing hunger.

4) The Seductive Power of Death

For many, death and its iconography are something to be shunned, as
though we can apply the childhood logic that if we don't see it, it
won't see us. But Rollin sees through such delusion and recognizes a
primal beauty to the ways in which we have visualized and portrayed
our own mortality. This is why his films are so frequently labeled as
horror films, despite having none of the narrative trademarks of the
genre -- visions of decay and morbidity haunt his films from first to
last. The Iron Rose, perhaps his greatest achievement, makes explicit
this dynamic as it considers two very different reactions to being
trapped in a cemetery, the literal land of the dead. Both parties end
up facing the same fate, but only "the girl," who has seen the beauty
in death, is transformed by it and thus transcends it.

5) The Passing of the Old World

Of all the filmmakers you could compare Rollin to, perhaps Jacques
Tati is an unusual choice. But it has always seemed to me that they
share a particular obsession: a deep sadness at the passing of the old
world and its replacement with a sterile modernity. Consider Playtime
and Night of the Hunted as strange companion pieces. Both are defined
by their being set among the glass and steel of modern office
buildings. Both seem to believe that such an environment can only
dehumanize its inhabitants. But between the two directors, Rollin was
far less optimistic. Whereas Tati seemed to ultimately suggest that
human nature would eventually assert itself against modernity and
carve new, more organic spaces for itself, anyone who has seen the
denouement of Night of the Hunted knows that Rollin believed that
something precious was being lost, perhaps irrevocably. Like the
scientific cult in The Nude Vampire, our age's attempts to measure,
rationalize and control our world must inevitably lead to our (or its)
destruction.

6) The Inadequacy of Language

Rollin's characters, especially in his later films, love to talk.
They circle around their subjects with a piling up of poetry, an
accumulation of words. Yet perversely, for all the beauty in the
language, Rollin seems intensely skeptical of our ability to actually
communicate with each other, to use language as a vehicle for sharing
our experiences. Perhaps its language's connection to rationality,
but speech frequently seems inadequate for its purpose in the cinema
of Rollin. Characters struggle against language as an implacable
barrier as they try to make each other understand the ineffable. His
filmography is nearly bookended with meditations on the subject. In
Les Pays Loin the protagonists wander in a labyrinth created by a
language barrier. In The Night of the Clocks, everyone has something
to say to Ovide, but their words seem only to draw her further and
further away from an understanding of her cousin (an understanding
that only images, icons, and experiences can really provide.)

7) The Redemptive Power of Fantasy

Just as we are made less human when we can no longer remember, we can
transcend our limitations when we are able to indulge our fantasies to
their fullest. Rollin spent his career chasing the fantasy figures
that made such an impression on his youth, a pursuit that enriched not
only his life, but the lives of all those who loved his films. His
characters, in turn, joined in on this pursuit whether by adopting
costumes (The Nude Vampire, Requiem for a Vampire), engaging in
performance (Shiver of the Vampire, Mask of Medusa) or simply -- and
perhaps most perfectly -- by telling each other stories (Lost in New
York.)



8) The Strength of Femininity

The heroic figures in Rollin's cinema are women. Even when the
protagonists are male, they are defined by their relationships to
women. Frédéric, in Lips of Blood, may be the single most appealing
and sympathetic male character in all of Rollin's filmography, but his
story is the story of a woman. His life is defined by his encounter
with a woman more captivating and powerful than he could ever hope to
be. Of course, the best illustration of the gender dynamics in
Rollin's work is in Fascination. There Marc, the robber who betrayed
his friends, clings to the symbols of male strength: his gun, his
will, his sexual dominance. Yet from the moment he encounters
Elisabeth and Eva he is at their mercy, whether he realizes it or not.

9) The Priority of Eroticism over Sex

One of the most common things you will read about Jean Rollin is also,
I believe, one of the most wrong. I don't know how many times I've
read critics, professional and amateur, asserting that Rollin was
obsessed with sex (usually given as somehow being proof of his
inadequacies as a director). This has always seemed to me to be the
most facile of observations. Yes, his films are replete with nudity
and with sex. But there are two considerations here. First, anyone
serious about understanding Rollin's work needs to take into account
the demands of the production environment in which Rollin worked.
Rollin frequently had to promise a certain amount of sex to get
funding for his films, and often (as in the case of Night of the
Hunted
) faced a continual struggle to retain his vision against
producers who would be more satisfied with a simple porn loop. No,
the sex scenes in Rollin's work are frequently perfunctory and rarely
possess the magic of his best moments. Second, is narrative context.
Rather than the sex act, I think it is eroticism that fascinated him
-- the aesthetics of desire. Just as the vampires that run rampant
through his films are defined by their hunger, sex in a Rollin film is
best when it's a desire unfulfilled. Many of the most striking images
in his filmography are deeply erotic but removed from an explicitly
sexual context: the iconic image of Brigitte Lahaie barely robed as
she wields a scythe in Fascination, Sandra Julien emerging from the
clock in Shiver of the Vampires, Françoise Pascal transformed by her
experience on the beach at Dieppe in The Iron Rose. In all three
cases conventional sexual dynamics and relationships are an obstacle
that has to be overcome before the true eroticism emerges.

10) The Value of Collaboration

For all that this list has focused on the man himself as the driving
force behind his films, the final theme I want to highlight is the
beauty and power that comes from collaboration with like-minded
friends. Rollin had an eye for beauty and a powerful imagination, but
his films would not have been the impressive body of work without the
host of tremendous talents he surrounded himself: the Castel twins,
Brigitte Lahaie, Philippe d'Aram, Jean-Jacques Renon, Willy Braque,
Natalie Perrey -- these are just some of the many frequent
collaborators who brought out the best in Rollin and did their best
work at his direction. In the 1980's financial problems drove Rollin
to prose rather than cinema as the outlet for his creative energies.
Undoubtedly the lack of constraints freed his imagination in a way
that it never had been before. Yet despite his success in this
endeavor he returned to film, even facing new limitations he continued
to make films right up to his final years. Why? Surely part of the
reason was the pleasure of working with others, seeing his imagination
reflected and transformed by the ideas of his companions. Why else
make a film like Night of the Clocks which, in addition to being a
meditation on his own mortality, was a joyful tribute to all the
people he'd worked with and the ways in which they continued to haunt
his imagination -- and ours.

Thanks again Daniel!

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