Obituary: Filmmaker Jean Rollin, Dead at 72
by Keri O’Shea
Jean Rollin 1938 – 2010
It’s strangely fitting that Rollin – a director who so often questioned the finality of death in his films – had only questionably passed away when a round of uncertain and conflicting rumours emerged this week (rumours which confused his passing with that of an art curator namesake). Sadly though, the rumours have turned out to be true. Jean Rollin has left us at the age of 72: despite years of ill-health, Rollin had continued working and was still enthusiastic about making movies, having completed his last – Le Masque de la Méduse – just last year.
Rollin was such a special filmmaker because he combined arthouse, horror and fairytale in a number of unique ways. Childhood and innocence figure strongly in much of his best work – and a strong dislike for the banalities of modern life (notably religion) nearly always hampers his characters in their quest for the fairytale world which eludes them, however warped that world may be or however warped the quality of the innocence. When Frédéric searches for the beautiful Jennifer of his childhood in Lips of Blood (1975), he puts himself into the power of a childlike, but ultimately deadly vampire; when Hélène helps the undead Catherine Valmont to remember their childhood friendship in The Living Dead Girl (1982), she puts herself into similar physical danger, and the sweet schoolgirls of Two Orphan Vampires (1997), so beloved of their convent school, are content to live a bloodthirsty lie.
Rollin’s movies nearly always refract these, and other themes through altered states of consciousness; many films are described as ‘trippy’ or dreamlike’ in criticism, but in Rollin’s case those words fit very well. As with several cult Euro directors of the 70s and 80s, linear narrative and plot do not figure particularly highly: neither does dialogue, to the exasperation of many viewers and, if you demand exposition from what you watch, you may find Rollin’s movies a challenge. Here, atmosphere reigns, and it is communicated by the use of fantastical characters, isolated, liminal environments, a slow, deliberate pace and sumptuous set-pieces. On top of all this already ‘trippy’ mix, Rollin often layers dream sequences, amnesia, flashbacks and hallucinations: this creates an immersive, sometimes baffling experience for audiences unused to this approach. For me, if you can get used to feeling, rather than conclusively knowing, then there is nothing quite like these movies.
Of course, as with all good fairytales – that is, in their earliest, unsanitised versions – blood, sex and death are never far away. Rollin will be forever associated with the female vampire, and in his vision, she’s unclothed a lot of the time. Rollin brought some truly beautiful women to the screen: Brigitte Lahaie, Françoise Blanchard and Dominique Journet to name but three, and shots of his leading ladies are perhaps better known than the films they come from. That said – and although he did direct straight pornographic titles under various pseudonyms – most of the nudity in his horror oeuvre is quite gentle and sensual. Similarly, although he did venture into some very grisly scenes during his career, much of his take on vampirism is suggested rather than explicit. He certainly developed the theme in some interesting ways, with Fascination (1979) as a stand-out example of a mood piece which plays with the idea of blood-drinking as an upper class social event, as well as a deadly habit…
UK distribution company Redemption was integral in resurrecting Rollin during the mid-nineties and, on a personal level, I saw all of my earliest Rollin movies on this label. Founder Nigel Wingrove came to enjoy a friendship with Rollin, releasing many of his films up to the present time and as a company, sharing a great deal of Rollin’s aesthetic sensibilities. The stylised femme fatales who adorn Redemption releases have a great deal in common with that aesthetic; more than that, though, they form an important part of the Rollin legacy. The part Redemption has played in bringing his movies to modern audiences should not be overlooked; without them, Rollin may never have occupied quite the same place in modern genre fans’ hearts.
As a quote from Lips of Blood runs, “the person evaporates, but the memory remains.” In the case of Jean Rollin, the person is gone, but we have a plethora of weird, wonderful films to remember him by. Let’s enjoy them