Like many, I was aware of the films of the French director Jean Rollin long before I viewed any of his work. It would have been some time in the mid-1980s when a horror film magazine I read published a still from the aptly titled Fascination (1979). It featured his recurring star Brigitte Lahaie standing upon a stone over a waterway in an ornate country garden. She wears a flowing black cape and red boots and is holding a scythe, wielding it towards camera lens. I checked these details for the purpose of accuracy, but so distinct was the memory that I had all the details correct. This image encapsulated all that I expected the film to be: a remote, stylish horror film infused with an erotic charge, haunted with lament.
In Australia Rollin’s films never received any theatrical distribution, nor can I find any evidence of them appearing among the slew of titles that were released in the early 1980s home video boom (his taste for combining sexuality and violence was catnip to our censors). Therefore the interested viewer had to acquire poor quality VHS copies from overseas sources. This satisfied my Fascination obsession and led to an expensive quest to track down as many Rollin films as I could find. With their mournful vampires, crumbling castles and windswept beaches there is a distinctness to the Rollin aesthetic, complemented with a lack of clarity to either character motivation or narrative resolution. For although mining a similar seam to Hammer Studios across the channel the similarity goes no further. The term “dreamlike” is often thrown around lazily, but to a degree it is applicable in describing Rollin’s work. However, it never feels as if we are experiencing a dream. Rather, we are watching a director recreating his recurring obsessions on film. Daydreams for the witching hour, if you will.
During his career Rollin’s critical standing was never high, hampered by the fact that, unlike other national cinemas in Europe, France has never had a tradition of producing fantastic film and nor, according to Rollin himself, were the French particularly fond of fantastic cinema, preferring it in literary form.1 He would also do himself few favours by agreeing to direct hardcore adult films whenever he was in financial need.
In the mid-1990s there began a major reappraisal of European genre cinema, much of the work initiated by scholars in Britain and (to a lesser degree) the United States. Teenagers who had tasted the delights of such fare on home video in the early 1980s were now graduates in cinema studies and, with a near-infinite supply of films dredged up, they were watching, writing and ready to print. In 1994 Cathall Tohill and Pete Tomb’s key text Immoral Tales: Sex & Horror Cinema in Europe 1956-1984,2 was published. Amongst essays on various aspects of topic were extensive analyses, career histories and interviews with six key filmmakers including Rollin, in which the authors set about situating him as a filmmaker worthy of discussion. Acknowledging his lack of adherence to the conventions of technical cinematic grammar, they find a director with a distinct visual style and thematic preoccupation: “He’s a weaver of dreams. Like Parisfal, returning to the barren kingdom with the secret of the Sangreal, he has the power to move us all with his out-of-step romanticism and wistful idealism”. 3
Immoral Tales was soon followed by Virgins and Vampires, a collection of essays by Rollin addressing each of his films with an additional, comprehensive interview conducted by Peter Blumenstock (and, in some editions, a CD of his soundtrack scores). 4 These major English language publications were the impetus for other writers to pick up the baton and delve into Rollin’s filmography – an easier task now that specialist companies were releasing his films on videotape. The most common feature of the literature of the Euro-horror revival was that the vast majority was written and edited by men. In Immoral Tales the authors relate an anecdote of a youthful Rollin visiting England, meeting a girl and kissing her on the beach. He never forgot her. “Of course he hasn’t; she’s there in almost all his films. At their best they are expressions of just that sort of moment, when our lives seem to belong to us”. 5 On painful reflection, as a somewhat awkward young consumer of both the films and the literature surrounding it, the compounding of the male gaze (director-viewer-writer-reader) may have offered a “safe” circuit of experience, one in which I could delve deeper into the understanding of Rollin’s work, yet only to a point – the inexplicable had to remain so, allowing me to return to my own variations of embracing that girl on the beach. Quite possibly the presence of a female voice within the discussion may, just may have shattered any illusions of her returning. Of course such a theory is both utterly nonsensical and the antithesis of quality critical discussion. However, when casting my mind back two decades to the time when the literature on the topic was so predominantly male (in terms of authorship and approach) this landscape had a conditioning effect. Thankfully, although gender balance remains far from level, the increasing number of women writers being published in this field has not only broken the boys’ club mentality that once existed, but has also forced consumers and writers such as myself to, frankly, grow up.
Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorgical Cinema of Jean Rollin is a corrective to the years that males have spent dominating the discussion of the director and his work. This project received some funding from an online crowdsourcing website on which the fact that women would be exclusively involved in its writing and publication was stressed within its mission statement. 6 However there is little proclamation of that fact within the text. Therefore, it is no different to any thematically related journal published twenty-five years ago that made no mention of its contributors being exclusively male. Although ostensibly this may be an exercise in gender-rebalance, it requests to be judged on its own merits as scholarship, and that is the most basic of the many standards upon which this book is an outstanding achievement.
Striking visuals are often the first frame of context when discussing the films of Jean Rollin. It is apt, then, that I must initially note that as a physical book Lost Girls is a beautiful object. In a time when so many academic cinema texts are published through imprints that offer quality content combined with the blandest of designs, Spectacular Optical has lovingly crafted this book, stuffing it with a giddy number of images (in colour and black and white) and provided the essays with a striking font that is very pleasant on the eye. That the publisher is the brainchild of the pioneering author and programmer Kier-La Janisse (who provides the text’s afterword) is a rare example of publisher and content being – literally and figuratively – on the same page.
A common criticism of Rollin is that story within his films only exists as an excuse to exhibit his striking imagery. As Tohill and Tombs argued this is not the case – the images work as a montage which, when carefully layered within the narrative create the sense of mystery he desires to evoke. 7 The design of Lost Girls achieves a similar purpose, its imagery (there is not a double page spread within the 434 pages without an image) placement is neither arbitrary nor obvious with the selection often illustrative of the text but on occasion surreal juxtapositions that often bewilder. It is an approach attuned to that of the subject – a reading experience that is possibly the closest approximation of viewing a Rollin film.
Editor Samm Deighan has assembled a team of fifteen contributors for this project, mostly with a background in cinema academia or journalism. Yet whilst each essay leads cogently into the next, the diverse theoretical and historical contexts each writer lends their work provides Lost Girls with a refreshingly confident breadth of ambition that may not have been possible with a more conservative publisher. However, this is an essential skill when dealing with Rollin, a filmmaker who lacked any tangible connection to either his national cinema or cultural movement and did not, at first glance, appear to be interested in including any contemporary social or political commentary in his work. Thus his excavators require a flexible and varied skillset in their approaches.
Gianna D’Emilio does link the hostile critical and audience reception of Rollin’s first feature, Le Viol du vampire (Rape of the Vampire, 1968) to the Paris riots of the same year and, with an examination of Rollin’s haphazard production methods this opening chapter convincingly sets the tone of a director whose ethos was out of step with the prevailing tastes and expectations of the ensuing decade. But were they? Heather Drain questions whether the fracturing of the family dynamic in Le frisson des vampires (The Thrill of the Vampires, 1971) is a representation of the counter-culture and alternative lifestyle movement of the time. Kat Ellinger takes this idea down a darker path by discussing the director’s interest in the occult and its relation to artistic movements and the contemporary popularity of cults and Satanism. Les raisins de la mort (The Grapes of Death, 1978) and La Nuit des tranquées (The Night of the Hunted, 1980) were a pair of zombie-horrors directed by Rollin that have long been the subject of critical scorn (often due to comparisons with the other entries within the then fleetingly popular zombie sub-genre of the day), Michelle Alexander does a commendable job in reading the films as eco/biological horrors – reactions to those harbingers of seventies paranoia, the threat to environment and society posed by chemical pollution. Evincing the measured approach in Lost Girls to the director’s limitations and occasional missteps, Alexander is content to dismiss the inept Le lac des morts vivants (Zombie Lake, 1981) as unworthy of rehabilitation.
Editor Deighann delves into Rollin’s other, even less appreciated (and seen) non-horror work – the comedies, sex films and sundry detritus that have blighted his critical standing. She does not shy aware from the varying quality of these works, but provides a superb industrial and social context for their existence and the economic necessities of producers and directors trying desperately to attract an audience with meagre budgets and maintain a living of their own.
It should be noted that these chapters are those most devoted to providing a detailed examination of Rollin’s working “career” as a filmmaker. For Lost Girls is not intended as a career overview and nor does it act as a biography (although, where pertinent, aspects of both are discussed throughout). Other chapters weave a tapestry of Rollin’s cinematic inspirations – D’Emilio (again), his debt to silent serials and those of the literary realm (recalling the director’s belief that the French preferred their fantastique in the written form), while Marcelline Block investigates the director’s debt to the poet Tristian Corbière and Virginie Sélavy ruminates on the director’s striking use of castles and parallels to the British gothic tradition. Alison Natasi is also intrigued by the mise en scène of ruins, particularly his use of cemeteries.
Naturally (and necessarily) many of the pieces are focused on difficult topics. In recent years Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has written extensively on the female rape-revenge film and she continues this work in exploring the theme as utilised in Les Démoniaques (The Demoniacs, 1974) and within the same vein Erin Miskell considers the impact of sexual assault upon female protagonists in several Rollin features Conversely Lisa Cunningham explores the female as the perpetrator of violence in Les Paumées du petit matin (The Escapees, 1981). These are not easy for any writer to traverse and whilst the question of whether men should be excluded from entering the conversation is too complex to be tackled here, the clear and matter-of-fact investigation of ideas presented in these essays presents a self-evident inherent knowledge that is at confident ease with the rest of the book. In that regard the contributors also cut through the turgid trepidation and sense of justification that one often has to get through when male writers wade into the fray.
Adding a personal touch are the bookends of a forward by actress Françoise Pascal recalling her experience working on La Rose de Fer (The Iron Rose, 1970), and the afterward by Jannise, who fondly remembers her time spent with Rollin and also pays tribute to the earlier generation of fans and scholars who championed the director and his films.
This hat tipping is an appropriate ending to Lost Girls. For the project is not an act of defiance against the male-dominated critical sphere of two decades ago. Rather, Jannise, Deighan and their crew of writers have taken the baton and have added the crucial female perspective that has been lacking for so long. Whilst definitely designed to be a beginner’s guide to Rollin (the reader should already be familiar with Rollin and his films) my one minor quibble is that a single page listing of his films would have been most useful when reading about a title, to be able to place it within the chronology of his filmography. That most minor of carps aside, Lost Girls is a remarkable achievement of ambition, design and content.
At the beginning of the review I mentioned the still from Fascination that had long beguiled me. It has been reworked as an illustration for the cover of Lost Girls with our scythe-wielding heroine now accompanied by a girl kneeling beside her. I presume that the these two women represent the female protagonist of Rollin’s cinema and the women critics who were given so little chance to speak. Their voices now found, they may not have completely located the lost protagonists but as their best yet advocates they have helped me understand them so much better. If only I had this book twenty years ago.
Samm Deighan (ed.), Lost Girls – The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Windsor: Spectacular Optical Publications, 2017)
- Peter Blumenstock (ed.), Virgins and Vampires (Schwenningen: Crippled Dick Hot Wax, 1997) p. 147. ↩
- Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs (eds.), Immoral Tales: Sex & Horror Cinema in Europe 1956-1984 (London: Primitive Press, 1994). ↩
- Tohill/Tombs (eds.), Immoral Tales, op. cit., p. 173. ↩
- Blumenstock (ed.), Virgins and Vampires, op. cit. ↩
- Tohill/Tombs (eds.), Immoral Tales, op. cit., p. 173. ↩
- “LOST GIRLS: The Cinema of Jean Rollin” https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/lost-girls-the-cinema-of-jean-rollin-film-feminism#/ ↩
- Tohill/Tombs (eds.), Immoral Tales, op. cit., p. 170. ↩