❉ Jean Rollin’s lysergic fever dream combines magical feminism, paganism, eroticism, Sadean satire… and vampires!
Jean Rollin’s films are like fever-dreams. Very few film-makers combine magical feminism with pulp cinema (plus vampires); painterly Clovis Trouille aesthetics with Gaston Leroux scenarios (featuring vampires); European paganism with Parisian chique (and vampires); women-centric eroticism with Sadean satire about the French class system (performed by vampires)…
Go on, you just thought he was just that French bloke who made saucy Lesbian vampire films, or the guy who directed ‘Zombie Lake’ (please ignore ‘Zombie Lake’; it’s not a real Jean Rollin movie. He got the call asking him to direct it the night before shooting began–literally as he was going out the door on holiday–because Jess Franco didn’t turn up, and Rollin, more than anyone, acknowledged that it’s pants.) At heart, Rollin was more of an artist then anything.
‘The Nude Vampire’ is a mad fever dream as lysergic as you could hope. In fact, Rollin’s style could be termed “Psychedelic Gothic” Like most of his works, it takes place in a sort of alternative nocturnal world that resembles our own, but which is firmly rooted in dream-logic.
Young Pierre (Oliver Martin, Rollin’s brother) has become obsessed with his millionaire father Georges Radamante’s (Maurice Lemaître) mysterious “private club;” a townhouse on the Ile Saint Louis. Strange figures in ‘Judex'(1963)-inspired animal masks patrol the grounds and take blood samples from artfully nude cult-members whose heads are coved in hoods resembling something Louis Feulliade’s version of Fantomas would favour if he’d switched his intimidating raven-black garb for camp bright scarlet (the opening laboratory scene looks like something out of a Max Ernst painting). Most mysterious of all is a beautiful young girl (The tragically short lived Caroline Cartier in her first role, credited as Christine Francoise), held captive at the townhouse. When she attempts to escape, Pierre tries to aid her, during which time she sees an unmasked human face–his own–for the first time, but her pursuers shoot her at close range, which has the effect of stopping her, though she seems immune to any lasting damage.
Along with his friend Robert (Pascal Fardoulis), an artist whose muse is a fetchingly voluptuous black nude model prone to doing interpretive dance moves around his attic studio, Pierre uncovers a weird corporate conspiracy, a suicide cult, a vampire girl who isn’t, and a strange race of inter-dimensional hippies determined to rescue the beautiful captive.
Despite only being Rollin’s second feature film, it codifies much of what was to come. It’s his first film in colour, which is very important to his comic book aesthetic. In fact one of ‘Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal’s’ founders Phillipe Druillet designed the poster, as he did with Rollin’s previous work, the literally riot-inducing but intriguingly nonsensical poem ‘Rape of the Vampire’ (aka ‘La Voil de Vampire,’ 1968), which is more an improvised jumble of undisciplined Rollinade ideas, rather than a more organised (but no less weird) dream-narrative. Rollin’s images, however, most closely resemble, and sometime directly reference, painter Clovis Trouille.
Themes of family are also explored, which reoccur in many later works, with his vampiric heroines either forming surrogate familial groups or, sometimes, with a character torn between a dysfunctional human family and a healthier but non-human feminine group. In this case, the conflict is uncharacteristically paternal and masculine, with Pierre torn between his father and the supernatural Grand Master (Michel Delahaye), with a mute girl who Radamante claims is an orphan and his ward, as the “prize”. With the revelation that Pierre himself is one of the same species as she, one has to wonder if Pierre is “adopted” too, in which case, what is the true nature of his relationship with the so-called vampire girl? Could they unknowingly be brother and sister? The idea of a lonely young man torn between an overbearing parent and acting upon his incestuous desires for a supernatural sister-figure would reoccur again in ‘Lips of Blood,’ (aka Levres de Sang, 1975); did Radamante somehow come into the possession of two super-powered siblings as infants, one he groomed to inherit his empire, the other he used as a test subject to learn the secret of immortality? What prompted Pierre’s investigations is never explained, but when Radamante berates him for snooping Pierre ambiguously asks, “But… you are my father?”
Though not particularly strong on the feminist front (the hetrocentricism of its central relationship precludes that, and it’s one of the very few Rollin films in which a relationship between two or more women doesn’t play a central role), it does introduce the figures of two girls who would become reoccurring protagonists in almost all of his films.
Here they’re supporting characters; the abused twin servants of Radamante, played by Pony and Cathy Tricot (real names Marie Pierre and Catherine Castel), who actually turn out to be on the side of the mysterious group attempting to rescue the girl and who ally themselves with Pierre. In fact, pretty much all the women in Radamante’s employ apart from his psychotic personal assistant, procurer, and assassin Solange (Ursule Pauly) turn out to be infiltrators acting for the forces of good.
Ultimately, after Radamante, Solange and his associates Voringe (Bernard Musson) and Fredor (Jean Aron) retreat to a stunning chateau in the countryside, they are left alone to defend themselves against the massive assault of what, at first, appear to be vampires but which we learn are something far weirder.
For Rollin fans, it will come as no surprise that the film climaxes on the same beach location in Dieppe that is his most frequent star. He happened upon it as a child whilst on holiday and was struck by its surreal, Rene Magritte quality. Only here, it stands in for another world, hidden behind the curtain of a theatrical stage in an abandoned country house, and eternally guarded by an elderly couple known only as King (Rene-Jean Chauffard) and Queen (Natalie Perry). We never really get an explanation as to what the so-called “vampires” really are. We just get Delahaye monologuing to camera about “mutants” and the “prototypes of future man.” The beach is apparently in another dimension, but no real answers are forthcoming.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Rollin’s films are so thin on the ground plot-wise that their narratives are little more than excuse to hang together a series of painterly supernatural occurrences. When watched in their original French (the English dubs are appalling) they’re so lyrical and poetic one easily forgives the clunkier moments brought about by their lack of budget and tight schedules (like when one of the suicide cult shoots herself in the head using an obvious non-functioning pistol accompanied by a party popper sound effect). Ironically, despite his heady mix of Leroux, Feuillade and De Sade, he was largely ignored in France until the 1990s, when he started commanding the budgets he deserved. He continued working up until his death in 2010.
Often achingly beautiful, and usually too arty for mainstream horror fans, Rollin is best seen as a nouvelle vague pop surrealist, closer to Jacques Rivet and Ulrike Ottinger, than the European horror/sleaze merchants like Jess Franco he’s usually lumped in with.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022