Requiem for a Dreamer: Jean Rollin’s Vierges et Vampires
Dredge a few images from deep within your unconscious: memories of your childhood, the first films you ever watched, the first comic books you ever read. Try not to censor your thoughts. Find a way to link these images into a story of some kind. Don’t worry too much about logic or a coherent plot. Then, without going back and revising your initial thoughts, shoot a film based on this narrative. If you follow this method, you just might end up with a film like Jean Rollin’s 1972 feature Requiem for a Vampire (Vierges et vampires).
Starting with just two images–two clowns fleeing in the countryside, and a woman playing piano in a graveyard—he sat down at his typewriter and began weaving a narrative, using a method akin to automatic writing. And so, two girls dressed as clowns shoot at a car pursuing them along a country road. They escape, but their male companion dies and they torch their car. The girls ditch their clown costumes and change into miniskirts and knee sox. They discover a motorcycle in a dilapidated barn and drive off until the bike runs out of gas. Hiding in a cemetery, one of the girls accidentally falls into an open grave and is almost buried alive by careless gravediggers. The girls explore the ruins of a nearby chateau, spending the night in the fur-covered bed. Awakened by strange noises, they come upon a woman playing the organ to an audience of skeletons in monk’s robes. The woman turns around and we see her fangs—she’s a vampire… And Rollin proceeded like this, with no clear end in mind.
Liberated from the rational chains of a constraining plot, the images in Jean Rollin’s films take on an independent existence. The story becomes a means to construct poetic bridges between autonomous images. This approach aligns him with early avant-garde filmmakers such as Jean Epstein who believed that cinema like life is not about stories, about actions oriented towards an end, but about situations open in every direction. In Rollin’s films one gets the sense that anything can happen at any given moment. Like the surrealists, he is less interested in the supernatural, than in the fantastic as it manifests itself in the everyday. Though not interested in horror per se, Rollin turned to the genre because it granted him the license to introduce elements of the irrational and poetic.
The resulting narrative is simple yet captivating: Michele and Marie, on the run from reform school, end up in a chateau where the last vampire resides along with his two female disciples, Erica and Louise, and their bestial lackeys. A melancholic figure more pathetic than frightening, he is searching for virgin blood to revive his waning energies and propagate his dying race. Rollin will return again and again to images and motifs expressed confidently here for the first time: the two girls, gothic castles, provincial graveyards, runaways, clowns. All that’s missing is the beach at Dieppe, with its haunting cliffs and twisted wooden poles, a crucial setting in almost all his films. There’s very little dialogue, and the first lines are only uttered 40 minutes into the film. This lends Requiem for a Vampire a purity and naiveté that evokes silent cinema, especially Louis Feuillade’s serials Fantômas and Les Vampires. Pierre Raph’s varied score, which incorporates free jazz, psychedelic rock, and classical guitar, virtually accompanies every scene, underscoring the silent film atmosphere. There’s something extremely organic about the film, even as it constantly shifts tone (from playful, to frightening, to moving). Rollin willfully rejects professionalism, preferring to make films with a group of friends in a spirit of adventure and play. Jean-Luc Godard often speaks about the “childhood” of cinema, before it became an industry, when filmmakers like Mack Sennett made films without a screenplay, freely improvising with small crews.
What the film lacks in production value, it more than makes up for in style. The cinematography is often stunning, and Rollin has a real flair for filming the French countryside. In a beautiful long shot that evokes Murnau, the girls flee across a prairie pursued by the vampires. There’s something otherworldly about the light in this scene, as if it’s both dawn and dusk at the same time. Nobody films cemeteries like Rollin–in his films they become miniature cities, eerie colored light emanating from individual tombs. An extraordinary tracking shot at night finds Louise playing romantic piano by candlelight amidst the gravestones, the girls seated beside her. Rollin has a keen eye for color. Marie and Michele’s flame-red clown wigs pop out against the lush green surroundings. In one elliptical shot that Rollin holds for a long time, the surface of a pond gradually takes on various hues. It takes us a while to register that the girls are washing off their clown make-up, since we only glimpse their faces afterwards.
With their immaculate doll-like faces and impossibly huge eyes, the two leads, Mireille Dargent and Pony Castel, exude a haunting beauty. The fascinating Pony would appear in many of Rollins films, often with her twin sister, Marie-Pierre, most memorably in Rollins masterpiece, Lips of Blood (1976). The girl’s amoral innocence evokes the adolescent protagonists of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Indeed Rollin’s films come closer than any I know to capturing the spirit of Bataille’s perverse fantasies and Sade’s gothic fairytales. Bataille himself, who had an affair with Rollins mother, would put little Jean to bed by telling him bedtime stories about a character named Monsieur le curé–a wolf dressed in priests robes.
Despite the gratuitous nudity and requisite sex associated with the genre (and often demanded by producers), Rollin’s films never come across as misogynistic. In Requiem for a Vampire, the men tend to be brutish, foolishly gullible, or impotent. The last vampire accepts his fate with quiet dignity, but possesses little sexual allure. Rollin’s female vampires, by contrast, convey an erotic power. Though women are associated with the chthonic, we never sense the fear of the castrating “phallic mother” encountered in such films as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Rollin seems to be in thrall to their ecstatic jouissance. One thinks of Joelle Coeur as the sadistic and insatiable Tina, leader of a criminal gang in Demoniacs (1974) masturbating on the beach, while her flunkies rape and torture the shipwrecked survivors. Furthermore, women, usually two girls, are the protagonists of his films. Certainly Michele and Marie are objects of desire in the film, yet as spectators we clearly identify with them, as does Rollin. They represent an innocence, but also a resilience and passion for adventure.
We encounter an adventurous female duo of one sort or another in almost all his subsequent films and novels. At times they seem to share an imagination, even to be facets of the same being. In Requiem for a Vampire, Michele and Marie often appear to be under a spell of some kind—and not only in scenes where they’re actually hypnotized (as when they’re led to a torture-filled crypt by one of the vampire’s disciples). They seemingly spend the entire film in a trance–as if the escapades befalling them don’t quite concern them. The awkward, amateur performances only enhance this effect. Gilles Deleuze spoke about the emergence of a new type of actor with the French New Wave–a mutant who becomes a detached observer rather than an active agent in their own stories. For Deleuze this signals a breakdown of classic storytelling and action—a hallmark of the modern cinema. This leads to a new emphasis on time itself. Time and memory are indeed key themes in most of Rollin’s films, and he paces his scenes deliberately, often allowing them to play out in real time. One also thinks of his signature image: a vampire dwelling within or emerging from a grandfather clock. Marie and Michele remind me of the two protagonists of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating. Isn’t the vampire’s castle a kind of House of Fiction? Both Rivette and Rollin have a fascination for romantic literature and the Feuillade’s serials, yet Rollin’s films are far less self-conscious. His films merge the intellectual and sensual in a way that the nouvelle vague rarely achieved.
Rollin’s work has been misunderstood ever since Rape of the Vampire, his first completed feature, premiered in Paris during the riots of May 68. A fascinating film, it’s a disjointed jumble of violent and erotic images: a vampire queen emerging from the sea, a blind woman playing skittles, a woman drinking blood from a vat, a nude woman riding in a funeral procession. Midway through the film, the dead protagonists of the first part come back to life. Reviled by audiences and critics expecting a straight horror film in the Hammer mold, it touched a nerve and became a succès de scandale. While blood flowed in the gutters outside the theater, bewildered spectators howled and threw objects at the screen drenched in rivers of artificial blood. In some instinctive, affective way, Rape of the Vampire tapped into the rebellious zeitgeist. In hindsight, it can be considered a subversive, political film. Glauber Rocha talked about how the paroxystic performances of his actors in such films as Terre Em Transe viscerally embodied a kind of revolutionary politics.
His films have always been too arty to satisfy the horror crowd yet too exploitative and unprofessional to convince serious critics. Mistaken for camp, at their best they attain a delirious beauty. The time is ripe to elevate Rollin to the front ranks of postwar French filmmakers. He should be regarded as the rightful heir to the poetic surrealism of Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, and Georges Franju. Make no mistake: Rollin is a bona fide auteur, compulsively returning again and again to the same images, themes, locations. He often speaks about how these obsessions can be traced back to childhood experiences. Although the exploitation market enabled him to keep making films, Rollin should be seen as a poète maudit obsessively searching for something in his past. Freud called it the uncanny. Tristan Corbière, the doomed romantic poet, called it “a homesickness for a land he’d never seen.”