This Friday and Saturday at midnight, the Music Box Theatre will screen Lips of Blood (1975), the first in a three-film series devoted to French exploitation director Jean Rollin (1938-2010). Upcoming are The Iron Rose (1973) on March 9 and 10, and Fascination (1979) on March 30 and 31. All three films come highly recommended to purveyors of the macabre, sexploitation freaks, and fans of Jacques Rivette, another French director who specialized in opaque, dreamlike narratives. That’s to say that Rollin is not just an acquired taste, but a fusion of several different acquired tastes. At the same time, there’s something inherently admirable about his tenacity (he signed about 20 very personal films over five decades and directed dozens of others pseudonymously), which has made him an underground favorite for decades. The films in this series are obsessive works that hammer away at a mad personal vision. Not for nothing did Dave Kehr, writing about Rollin in the New York Times in 2012, describe him as an outsider artist.
More than a considered style and set of themes, Rollin’s work projects a compelling pathology, at once obvious (masochistic fantasies of childlike men smothered by sexually empowered women) and hopelessly obscure (a desolate stretch of the Normandy coast, Pourville-lès-Dieppe, somehow connected to Rollin’s own childhood, appears with almost comic regularity). He has a remarkable feeling for gloomy, isolated locations: abandoned cemeteries, bricked-up apartment blocks, crumbling châteaux situated in provincial obscurity. He likes his women full-bodied (unfashionable in the 1970s); dressed in diaphanous, pastel-colored nightgowns; and preferably in pairs.
That’s as a good a way as any as summarizing the content of the films in the Music Box series, which drift from one episode to another with unaccountable logic. In Lips of Blood a 30-ish playboy named Frederic who’s unable to remember anything about his childhood tries to locate a castle he sees in a photograph because the image makes him recall a strange event from when he was 12 years old. In his quest Frederic inadvertently releases onto the world four female vampires who had been locked in a crypt; these women have something to do with the mysterious woman who had appeared to him when he was 12. Frederic gradually learns of a conspiracy involving his late father and a community of a vampires, encountering lots of nude women on the way. The film ends with Frederic reunited with the woman from his memory, who’s a vampire herself. She turns Frederic into a vampire and the two take off to sea in a floating coffin.
In its wild complications and paranoid vibe, Lips of Blood suggests a concentrated version of of a serial by pioneering French director Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires, Fantômas). Don’t worry if you can’t follow the plot—sometimes it’s best to get lost in the dream. As in dreams one finds representations of personal obsessions mixed up with inscrutable imagery and sexual fantasies. What emerges most strongly in the film is a twined fascination with sex and death, a very French notion of losing oneself in pleasure.
That theme is presented nakedly in The Iron Rose, a nearly plotless film about two lovers who get lost in a cemetery. That movie begins with a documentary-style sequence in which the lovers first meet at a banquet hall in Normandy. Rollin’s depiction of the area is stark and forbidding, though his depiction of the lovers is natural and charming. The two meet later to go on a date; walking home through a cemetery, they stop to make love, then find after dark that they’ve forgotten the way out. Rollin makes the cemetery seem like an expansive maze, sequencing shots in such a way that one has no sense of the layout. (To quote Kehr again: “Moments like these . . . remind us of the close kinship of outsider art and the avant-garde. It is, after all, difficult to distinguish between rules broken out of innocence and rules broken with study and deliberation.”) The Iron Rose doesn’t tell a story so much as linger on a mood. It’s the most minimal and most rarified of the Rollin films I’ve seen.
Fascination combines the outlandish plotting of Lips of Blood with the creeping storytelling of The Iron Rose. Set in 1905 it follows a Parisian thief named Mark who breaks off from his gang to rob a chateau he believes to be abandoned. The chateau turns out to be inhabited by two young women; they introduce themselves to Mark as chambermaids, but Mark comes to suspect that they may have another connection to the house. That connection doesn’t become clear for a while; as in Iron Rose, Rollin vamps on a few themes (sadomasochism, sex, and crime) and creates a dreamlike ambience from the setting. But when he introduces the plot twists, they’re wild enough to carry the whole the whole picture.