Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin

❉ If you’re a Rollin fan, even a casual one, this is essential viewing, writes Jonathan Sisson.

“For the first time, someone has actually coalesced an ample history of Rollin’s upbringing, formative years, influences, biography, philosophy and production struggles into an easily digestible viewing experience whilst providing critical analysis to boot … If you’re a Rollin fan, even a casual one, this is essential viewing.”

Go on, admit it. As an avid reader of We Are Cult, they had you at the title, didn’t they?

There is a criminal lack of material on French cinema’s best yet most underrated purveyor of the fantastique. Aside from such volumes as Orchestrator of Storms interviewee David Hinds’ Fascintation: The Celluloid Dreams of Jean Rollin and Spectacular Optical’s superlative Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Edited by Sam Deighan), there’s really very little out there aside from the odd interview (in which Rollin, ever humble, often repeats the same information) or director’s commentaries on expensive special edition DVDs and Blu-Rays. Incidentally, Lost Girls, though sadly no longer available in its original coffee table print format is still on sale from Spectacular Optical’s website as a PDF E-book for just $20 (Canadian) and is really, really worth picking up if you’re a Rollin fanatic like me. We’re not getting any backhanders for this, by the way! I could name a scant few more, but they’re long out of print and prohibitively expensive even if you can find them.

BUT cinematic explorations of Rollin’s work are scarcer still. For decades, the closest thing we had to a proper documentary of any kind was the first episode of the much missed late 90s TV series Eurotika!, but at 24 minutes, the show didn’t have much room to go into any real depth. Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger’s wonderfully titled Orchestrator of Storms, on the other hand, whilst oddly reminiscent of Eurotika! — what with its mix of rostrum shots, archive footage, talking heads, occasionally jazzy score, Penelope McGhie-style narration by Ayvianna Snow and obligatory appearance from Nigel Wingrove — is close to two hours long and is a far more serious, reverent and comprehensive endeavour, and whilst I do have a few minor quibbles, I ultimately cannot recommend it highly enough.

For the first time, someone has actually coalesced an ample history of Rollin’s upbringing, formative years, influences, biography, philosophy and production struggles into an easily digestible viewing experience whilst providing critical analysis to boot. Thus, we get reminiscences from collaborators Brigitte Lahaie, Françoise Pascal and Véronique Djaouti along with a mix of analysis, biographical and production information from the likes of Kier-La Janisse (who contributed the afterword to Lost Girls), Madeleine Le Despencer along with the previously mentioned Wingrove, amongst others.

Just about everything directly related to Rollin is covered from his formative years and the influence of his mother’s lover Georges Bataille, no less, as well as the literary, intellectual and artistic crowed she surrounded herself with upon his own artistic development, to his entry into the business of cinema, his terse relationship with the members of the nouvelle vague and the ups and downs of his career path, to his eventual recognition as a cult icon through to his near-superhuman struggles through overwhelming health difficulties to complete his final three features. Véronique Djaouti’s account of the last years of his life both tear at the heartstrings and drive home just how obsessive the man was about film making.

On that note, I would have liked to have heard from more of those directly connected to him; presumably, tracking more of his performers and collaborators down and interviewing them was problematic from a budgetary and logistical standpoint, but this a small gripe as the film doesn’t really suffer for it since we get all the information we need. I also think the fact that one of Rollin’s closest collaborators, both in front and behind the camera, Natalie Perrey, never gets a mention is a rather egregious omission.

Oddly enough, given that I myself consider Rollin one of greatest film-makers to come out of France (certainly in my book superior to Jean-Luc Godard; in the words of Werner Herzog, “Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film”), I think the film’s biggest flaw is the level of gushing praise some of its contributors heap upon his work, to the point where anyone watching the documentary prior to seeing any of Rollin’s films might be left with too high expectations and anyone familiar with his life and work might roll their eyes at a couple of points. This is, perhaps, somewhat understandable, given that there are really only two reactions when one is confronted with Rollin’s films; acute boredom or a sense of being magically transported to the world of dreams, and I’m aware I’m being guilty of it myself here but, you know, take it with a pinch of salt.

That said, if you’re a Rollin fan, even a casual one, this is essential viewing. Personally, I’m going to recommend it to everybody I’ve ever screened a Rollin film to. At the same time, if you do take the effusive praise with a grain of salt and be prepared to go into Rollin’s cinema ready for a slow, dreamy and very strange experience, it can act as an essential primer for anyone new to his work; it’s nice to see his influences properly covered beyond the usual Zorro-and-Mysterious-Dr-Satan-at-the-Cineac; even Jean Lorrain gets a mention, which I haven’t seen or heard done outside of Lost Girls and I would say his short story collection Nightmares of an Ether Drinker is one of the key texts when it comes to deciphering at least some of Rollin’s films. I’ve always felt that Rollin is one of the film makers like, say, Derek Jarman, Ulrike Ottinger or Matthew Barney who send you down literary, cultural and mythological rabbit holes, and Orchestrator of Storms points you in the right directions to follow this up. Too many sources cite Rollin’s cinematic influences yet fail to cover his more important literary and artistic ones such as painter Clovis Trouille.

On the other hand, even if you’ve no interest in Rollin, I think it will be of interest to anyone wanting to get into independent film making themselves; never have I seen so many behind-the-scenes photos of a man with a pipe and a Cameflex, and Rollin’s determination in the face of an unsympathetic film industry and indifferent public are enough to inspire anyone, especially in these days of readily accessible digital equipment.

Overall, then, Orchestrator of Storms covers all the bases it needs to and is a solid bit of documentary film making. Given the difficulty and relative obscurity of its subject, its makers did the best job we could hope for.

❉ ARROW present the exclusive premiere of “Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin” (2022) from 14 February 2023 (UK/IRE/US).  Head to ARROW and start your 30-day free trial at www.ARROW-Player.com. Subscriptions are available for £4.99 monthly or £49.99 annually.

❉ Jonathan Sisson is an actor, film maker, internationally exhibited photographer and film critic. He is currently working on his first feature film. Instagram: J_D_Sisson Website: jonathansisson.com/

Art and Selected Stills: Justin Cook PR.

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