It’s been reported by various web sites that French film director Jean Rollin died within the last week. This is very sad news as not only was Rollin a major figure in European fantastic cinema, but he was still working and had only recently completed a new feature – as yet unreleased – The Mask of the Medusa.
My first contact with the cinema of Jean Rollin was through the editions of his films released in the UK via cult video company Salvation, who released a number of early efforts such as La Vampire Nue and Requiem pour un Vampire in the early 90s, alongside contemporary efforts from Jess Franco and Mario Bava. What impressed me in these films was the poetry of the imagery and the consistency and uniqueness of the world Rollin had created. Though there are stylistic differences in the early vampire cycle, there is a consistency of tone and an obsessive quality to the mise-en-scene which, combined with Rollin’s recurring cast, results in a blurring of the boundaries between individual features. I often find it difficult to remember which films contain certain scenes, though I have watched each of his films dozens of times. What is memorable is a certain longing, a sense that Rollin was continually striving to impress on us the experience of a under appreciated, idealistic artist who had glimpsed a beauty and a peace that was destined to remain just out of reach.
Rollin’s films are constantly staged on the boundaries – the recurring use of the beach at Dieppe, as characters rise out of or sink into the sea; the graveyards which give up their dead; the hours of dusk and dawn where vampires can emerge from grandfather clocks or slink back to their crypts. They use generic tropes to populate cast and setting and then abandon or subvert expectation. The vampires, dead girls, pirates and corrupt industrialists are often as hunted and haunted as the lost girls and boys they prey upon, their ends as tragic and gruesome. Death is often seen as something to be embraced – a means of crossing the boundary from the staid material world to the world of the eternal and the beautific. Other recurring themes such as the fragility of identity and memory reinforce this impatience and sense of frustration with the limitations of mortality.
Though Rollin was often crticised for his direction of actors, or at least for the ‘somnambulant’ performances to be found in his films, it cannot be doubted that some of his casting was inspired. Though many of his regular cast were drawn from a group of close friends and relatives, the contribution of female performers such as Brigitte Lahaie, Sandra Julien, Joelle Coeur, Francoise Blanchard, Francoise Pascal, Caroline Cartier and the Castel twins is immense and makes a real contribution to the success of films which are, often refreshingly, female-centric. The mischeviousness of the Castels, the icy beauty of Lahaie, the cruelty of Coeur or the vulnerability of Blanchard – all fit the parts they were chosen to play as if born for them – and for this credit must be given equally to Rollin’s eye, given the relative lack of success these actresses achieved.
Also contributing to the success of Rollin’s films were impeccable technicians such as DoP Jean-Jacques Renon, who gave many of Rollin’s films an extraordinarily colourful and vibrant look. The use of coloured gels in Les Frissons des Vampires approaches the intensity of Dario Argento’s supernatural work. Rollin’s films have often had soundtracks which matched the beauty of their visuals, with the incredible prog-rock score for Frissons an early example and later efforts from Phillipe d’Aram admirably enhancing the emotional impact of what might otherwise have proven overwhelmingly static visual tableau. The constant presence of Rollin regulars such as Lionel Wallmann and Sam Selsky undoubtedly also contributed to the consistency and sucess of the productions, from behind the scenes.
Ultimately though, these films are the true work of one man and his undiluted vision. As has been said of many an auteur, one knows from a handful of frames that a film is his. Despite the efforts of a few admirers and contemporaries (see Girls Slaves of Morgana le Fay for a alternative Rollinade) there has been truly nothing like the work of Jean Rollin and I imagine that the current cinematic climate means that we will sadly not see his like again.
We are left with his work. And, for that, merci beaucoup, Monsieur Rollin.