Our Great Outsider

Our Great Outsider: The Films of Jean Rollin

An essay by Jeremy Richey 

Great cinema has nothing to do with commerce. Despite the fact that most film fans have been brainwashed into believing that budgets and box-office tally’s correlate with what makes a film great, it is creativity, passion and vision, and not a fat-check, that creates lasting art. Long after the much-discussed blockbusters and trendy critical darlings fade from memory it is the work of filmmakers willing to go against expectations and trends that will survive. It is the work of filmmakers whose films are guided by their hearts and not their bank-accounts that will resonate. One such filmmaker is the late French maverick Jean Rollin.

Dismissed in his home country from the moment he picked up a camera, and almost universally ignored or maligned everywhere else, Jean Rollin had to fight against the system his entire near fifty-year film career. Despite the constant criticism, the unbelievable harsh budgetary restraints and tight-shooting schedules, Jean Rollin persevered and kept working up until his passing at the age of 72 shortly before Christmas in 2010. While he tragically wouldn’t live to see the rather shocking mainstream acceptance of his work that has occurred within the past year, Jean Rollin at least was granted the knowledge that the films he had worked so hard to deliver throughout his career would indeed be remembered.

My own experience with the cinema of Jean Rollin is one shared by many of his American, and English-language, fans. Thanks to writers like Tim Lucas, Daniel Bird, Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs (and grey-market VHS distributors like Video Search of Miami, Luminous Film and Video Works, Midnight Video and European Trash Cinema) the legacy of Jean Rollin really began to gather steam in the mid-nineties, long after the mainstream press and studio-based world cinema system had all but written him out of film history books. Through passionate writing by film scholars and poor-quality VHS copies of his films, often copied multiple times and traded through friends, I and many other future devotees fell in love with the poetic work of Rollin and we knew it was something unbelievably special and unique.

The five films the Triskel Arts Centre have chosen to make up their upcoming Jean Rollin film festival all stand with Rollin’s most distinctive and greatest works, created during a period that can accurately be labeled as Rollin’s golden-years. From his chaotic and wild Godard-inspired feature-length debut Le Viol du Vampire (1968) to the haunting and graceful Fascination (1979), the films of Jean Rollin in this period are astonishing creations that contain a unique and singular vision rarely seen in modern-film. These two works, along with La Vampire Nue (1970), Le Frisson des Vampires (1971) and Les Demoniaques (1972), are perfect starting points for newcomers to the fantastical world of Jean Rollin and will make up a festival that will be remembered for a long-time for those fortunate enough to attend.

The Films of Jean Rollin festival starts chronologically backwards with the elegant and erotic Fascination, an unusual work fuelled by Rollin’s thoughtful direction and the blazing performances of his lead actresses Brigitte Lahaie and the much-missed Franca Mai. Among the few films truly deserving of the term ‘hypnotic’, Fascination is one of Rollin’s most mesmerizing works and one of the most original ‘vampire’ films ever created. Comparing it to the all but forgotten big-budget studio-backed neutering of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, also from 1979, Fascination still feels wonderfully alive and is the ideal entry-way into the world of Jean Rollin. It is no surprise that is a major fan-favorite.

The years that led up to Fascination and the festival’s next film, Les Demoniaques, were frustrating ones for Rollin. This period would see him create two of his greatest films, Lèvres de sang (1975) and Les raisins de la mort (1978), but would find him staying afloat financially by joining the growing ranks of filmmakers forced into hardcore adult filmmaking, a genre Rollin had very little creative interest in. These films to pay to the bills, directed under the pseudonyms of Michel Gentil and Robert Xavier, are artistically the least interesting works in Rollin’s canon but they’d allow him to continue to work outside a system that had totally rejected him by the mid-seventies, and would introduce him to some of his most notable stars (including the glorious Lahaie, perhaps the most iconic figure in Jean Rollin’s filmography).

Perhaps no other film in Jean Rollin’s canon shows off his adoration and love of silent-film, and the serials he grew up with, than Les Demoniaques, a wonderfully bizarre work starring the mysterious and unforgettable Joëlle Coeur. Here we see Rollin as a filmmaker capable ofmelding together the films of his youth with the permissible attitudes of the seventies. Les Demoniaques is a startling film that manages to be simultaneously shocking and quaint. With its many allusions to both classic films and literature we can see Rollin as both an artist indebted as well as an absolute innovator.

Along with Le Rose defer (1973) probably my personal favorite Jean Rollin film is the dazzling Le Frisson des Vampires, a stunning workthat stands as the ultimate collaboration between Rollin and his greatest cinematographer, the uber-talented Jean-Jacques Renon. Driven by the acid-rock score of Acanthus (a brilliant group whose music has finally resurfaced thanks to the diligent workof Andy Votel and the folks at Finders Keepers Records) there is simply nothing else in film quite like Le Frisson des Vampires. With Renon’s dazzling lighting designs, Rollin’s confident-direction and the presence of the marvelous Castel Twins, Le Frisson des Vampires can rightly be called the ‘ultimate’ Jean Rollin film and it finds him at the height of his creative powers.

The Films of Jean Rollin festival concludes with Rollin’s first two features, La Vampire Nue and Le Viol du Vampire. They are the most confrontational films Rollin ever made and would cement his place as a cinematic outsider who would have to wait decades to finally have his work granted the proper respect it so deserves. La Vampire Nue can be viewed today as the film where Rollin really began finding his footing as a filmmaker and it would also be the film that would find him joining up with a group of like-minded creative outsiders, in front of and behind the camera, willing to go on the fantastical journey he was embarking on.

Rollin’s audacious debut Le Viol du Vampire closes the festival and it still packs a major wallop more than four decades after it first shocked French audiences in the tumultuous year of 1968. An improvised film made up of two parts, the black and white Le Viol du Vampire is one of the most adventurous and boldest first-features in screen history. A remarkable film, that both embraces and rejects the French New-Wave, in-tune with the rebellious spirit of the time, Le Viol du Vampire is one of the first DIY Punk films and it feels more necessary with each passing year as the world-cinema landscape becomes more safe and sanitized.

The legion of fans that discovered the magical world of Jean Rollin in the past couple of decades felt particularly protective of the great man. We watched inspired as he returned to filmmaking in the mid-nineties, despite numerous health issues, and we admired that he soldiered on right up until the very end. Despite our love for him none of us could have predicted that his work would soon be embraced by mainstream publications like The New York Times or aired on the prestigious Turner Classic Movies. We were used to Rollin always being on the outside so the recent mainstream acceptance has been both surprising and welcome. Thanks to the Kino-Lorber/Redemption Blu-rays and Finders Keepers soundtracks, it’s a marvelous time to be a Jean Rollin fan but it is bittersweet as he didn’t live long enough to see his work finally embraced the way it should have been decades ago.

The Triskel Arts Centre Jean Rollin Film Festival is another step in the long-deserving establishing of Rollin as one of the most fearless, innovative and unique filmmakers that emerged in the modern-film era. With his films and soundtracks now presented in the best possible way the legacy of Jean Rollin will continue to prosper long after the work of his rule-abiding peers fades from memory.

Jeremy Richey, 2012

Jeremy Richey is an American-based writer on film and music who runs and writes the online sites Moon in the Gutter and Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience.

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