Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ten Reasons to Watch a Jean Rollin Movie

Every once in a long while I turn my weary head toward Jean Rollin, the Ed Wood of France--turnabout is fair play--for a number of pubescent, tumescent, prurient, prodigal reasons (for the sake of the title of this piece, ten of them):

1. He has the French knack for extended shots of nothing in particular. If someone is going to drive up to a house, get out of the car, make it to the door, fish around for keys, and go in, it's happenin' in real time, bebe, in a flat, stationary medium shot that tells us only that someone has driven up to a house, gotten out of the car, and so on.

2. He will employ the exact same static real-time approach to girls standing around naked.

3. Sometimes vampire girls.

4. OK, lesbian vampire girls.

5. He does the above without much visual imagination, and yet he fancies himself a surrealist. This paradoxically makes for some truly surreal sequences, since they're so matter-of-fact and mondo weirdo at the same time.

6. The English titles of his films often verge on the astounding (and are often simply translations of their equally desperate-living French titles): Once upon a Virgin (1975), Requiem for a Vampire (1971), The Shiver of the Vampires (1970), The Grapes of Death (1978)--or, more precisely, in terms of the French title, The Raisins of Death--The Living Dead Girl (1982), or--and this is the one I most recently saw--Night of the Hunted (1980), which the Internet Movie Database parenthetically informs us is the "informal literal English title." C'est vrai!--that is, I kid you not. Notice how, as in pornographic movies (and, quel surpris, given some titles, he does seem to have made some (softcore?) porn films), his titles slink around the feet of their betters. But with Rollin, it almost seems an afterthought. It is as if he honestly figures that both Wrath and Death have grapes.

7. Watching his movies explains Anne Rice better than any LARPer ever could. Rollin's movies may have much to answer for, but they also answer much.

8. Back to the nudity. His women are simply there, like clouds or buildings. This allows for close scrutiny of the non-enhanced version of the pinup model, gone forever--except for the internet, but you're on your own with that line of research. You watch your keywords, you naughty naughty thing.

9. Like Wood, he manages plots that are often both perfunctory and delirious. Case in point:

Night of the Hunted begins almost like Les yeux sans visage, Georges Franju's 1959 surrealist-indebted surgical horror film: the road at night, headlights, sudden plunges in medias res. But instead of a disorienting mood of dread, as soon as he can Rollin gives us the bijou of a naked woman. She is rescued by a man who takes her home and has sex with her--and along the way treats her a bit roughly; he seems angry she's an amnesiac, despite her nudity and pliable personality--but this is the French way, again and again in their films--and he manages to fall in love with her. But her amnesia gets in the way; even her time with him slips from her mind as she sits in his apartment. While the man is at work she is taken away to a huge "Tower"--a kind of industrial park of highrises; as someone points out, you can see L'Arc de Triomphe from the upper stories. Anyway, the Tower is filled with people in the woman's condition: catatonic, short-term-memory-stripped, eventually-winding-down automatons. There's more sex, some murders, and an eventual explanation: A nuclear power plant malfunction had zapped passers-by, who have been spirited away to the Tower, there to allow the debilitating effects of being zapped to run its course until they're considered "dead," at which point they're redundantly killed. The man seeks out the woman, and in the course of their attempted escape he is shot in the head, a grazing wound, one that puts him in the same zombie-like state as his girlfriend. In a long--and I mean LONG--closing shot, they wander away from the camera, hand in hand, shuffling and stumbling toward death, like Milton's Adam and Eve, but not really. Finis.

This synopsis actually does the film justice, and Rollin adds some interesting touches: the denizens of the Tower invent memories, as well as relationships with each other; there's some internal debate among the Tower's administrators as to whether they should be in the covert euthanasia business; and did I mention the nudity? But the overall impression is of an aimless hand fumbling at clay it never commits to shaping.

10. The distance between one viewing and the next of a Rollin picture is great enough that I convince myself he's worth one more shot. I'll admit that those long, silent takes can be kind of fascinating, and that his world is just disjointed enough to create enough low-level anxiety to disjoint the patient viewer. But I think what really makes me return to Rollin is that I keep mistakenly crediting him as the director of Vampyros Lesbos (1971), a truly unhinged extravaganza of eurotrashploitation, actually helmed by Jesus Franco of Spain. If only I'd keep these guys straight, I could waste my time more productively.

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