Pierre Fournier Reviews "Jean Rollin: The Stray Dreamer" [2009] – Fantasia 2011

I’m honored and delighted to present a guest post from award-winning blogger Pierre Fournier of Frankensteinia. Pierre is one of the finest horror journalists I’ve had the privilege to meet, and his keen eye for the aesthetics of terror makes it a joy to read his work. Right now, Pierre is living it up at the Fantasia International Film Festival, rubbing shoulders with some of the most iconic names in genre cinema (if I didn’t love him so much, my envy would be unbearable!). Among the incredible offerings–both new & vintage–at the fest was the 2009 documentary “Jean Rollin: The Stray Dreamer,” which provides an intimate look at the man behind some of the most iconic films of fantastique cinema. What follows is Pierre’s review of this film.


Celebrating its 15th glorious year, Montreal’s Fantasia has grown to become the biggest genre film festival in North America, and stands solidly among the world’s best. Need proof? See this year’s program and judge for yourself. Films every day, features and shorts, running over three amazing weeks. Add some panels, live shows and sometimes raucous sell-out crowds — spontaneous parties have been known to erupt at midnight showings of El Santo movies — and you’ve got a major genre event. And Fantasia might also be the coolest festival around. I mean, an upcoming screening of the cult classic ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE S.S. has already sold out and, tell me, where else could you find Udo Kier working the lobby, as he did on opening weekend this year, greeting fans, shaking hands, posing for pics?

Fantasia has its share of world premieres and high-profile films, but it also provides a rare chance to see features, foreign and domestic, too weird and whacked out for mainstream screens, obscure titles, experimental works and documentaries you’d have a tough time tracking down on your own. Case in point, JEAN ROLLIN: THE STRAY DREAMER, the 2009 documentary by Damien Dupont and Yvan-Pierre Kaiser. It’s a straight-up, chronological survey of Rollin’s career illustrated with choice clips from his films — lots of nude vampires with bikini tan lines — propelled by unobtrusive narration and peppered with comments by critics, actors and collaborators including Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, Brigitte Lahaie and Pete Tombs, author of Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984, one of the first among critics and historians to champion Jean Rollin.

Best of all is Rollin himself, onscreen through most of the film, a twinkle-eyed, affable, soft-spoken man, generous with anecdotes and perpetually amused by his own adventures. And what extraordinary adventures he had…

Rollin, we learn, came with serious cultural creds. His parents hung out with celebrated surrealists, radical thinkers and heady intellectuals. Dad directed experimental theatre and Mom posed for paintings, but young Jean remained unimpressed by the famous houseguests. The boy’s all-consuming passion ran to pulp fiction, Tarzan comics and movie serials. As an adolescent, he haunted the Midi-Minuit, Paris’ infamous B-Movie cathedral, home of monster movies, horse operas and poverty row potboilers.

On one fateful evening, expecting to see Eddie Constantine handing out knuckle sandwiches, Rollin stumbled onto the Midi-Minuit’s weekly Film Club gathering. The program kicked off with UN CHIEN ANDALOU, with its razored eyeball opening, and included Jean Cocteau’s LE SANG D’UN POÈTE. Rollin was thunderstruck. Schooled in surrealism, raised on cheap pulps and lowbrow movies, “two contradictory and improbable universes” collided, creating the basis for Rollin’s oeuvre.

Rollin, inevitably, became a filmmaker, learning his craft on wartime recruitment films, eventually directing short subjects. In 1963, he embarked on his most ambitious project to date, a surrealistic feature film, L’ITINERAIRE MARIN. Securing actor Gaston Modot of UN CHIEN ANDALOU and armed with dialogs written by Marguerite Duras, author of HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, filming progressed until the money ran out. Investors were sought out, a showing arranged, but all Rollin could cobble together was a rough edit, without sound. A “catastrophic” screening, in Rollin’s own words. The project collapsed. Critics, and Rollin himself, would later reflect on this missed opportunity. What would have been Rollin’s career if L’ITINERAIRE MARIN had been completed? Would he have been a Godard? A Jacques Tati? How did he end up disparaged as “the French Ed Wood”?

The final puzzle-piece of Rollin’s unusual career would drop into place in 1968. A producer friend had booked an old American poverty row chiller, PRC’s DEAD MEN WALK, made way back in 1943. Running barely an hour’s time, a companion feature was needed to make it a show. Rollin was offered a few thousand francs to come up with a short horror film that would serve as filler. There was only one caveat: Based on the success of Hammer Films’ sexy horrors, nude scenes were essential. In a matter of days, Rollin batted out a script and got to work. The producer could make neither heads nor tails out of the rushes, but there were vampires, the requisite topless victims and roughly forty minutes of footage, so he poneyed up some more cash for Rollin to pad it out as a full-fledged feature. Instead of going back over his work, Rollin devised new scenes, called it “part two”, and THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRES was done. It opened in Paris, in May of 1968.

Riots were sweeping across Paris, students on barricades, police with nightsticks charging. The city came to a standstill, many movie houses went dark, and Rollin’s erotic, dreamlike vampire film turned out to be the only new movie in town, drawing the full attention of French media. Nobody seemed to understand what the film was about. It was a anarchistic and “anti-academic”. Opening night crowds rioted, throwing garbage at the screen. The critics were murderous. One writer called on cinephiles to seek out the perpetrator of this film, drag him out and beat him up in public, lynch-mob style. The nicest review, as Rollin remembers, was the writer who said “It’s a good thing Rollin is not a butcher. His blood sausage would taste like crap!” Rollin’s reputation as a z-grade filmmaker was instantly and indelibly made. It would stick for decades, even while he created beautiful, genuinely disturbing and immensely personal films.

Weathering the critical tsunami, Rollin was surprised to see his film playing weeks on end to full houses, racking up huge revenues. Soon, he was making THE NAKED VAMPIRE and THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, in color, which he used to great effect.

Rollin wrote fast and directed even faster. He always privileged atmosphere over narrative. He did not direct his actors, forcing them to improvise off the barest of instructions, creating confusion for cast and crew and cultivating a sense of on-set unease that permeated the finished films. Unless a major technical glitch intervened, first take was always a wrap. ‘I’ve seen it once,” Rollin said, “I don’t need to see it again.”

Jean-Pierre Bouyxou notes that superstar directors like Godard and Rohmer often made crude films, their failings forgiven as the best anyone could do on a shoestring budget, while Rollin, who never cared for perfection, never bothered with strict continuity, was condemned as a hack. The difference lay in Rollin’s themes. Unlike his contemporaries, Jean Rollin was tagged as a horror film director, and horror films were seen as cheap, lowbrow entertainment. Cut off from the filmmaking mainstream, Rollin, a true independent, pursued his personal, renegade vision, his poetry nestled inside horror film trappings.

In the late 70’s, censorship was abolished in France and Rollin was told to ramp up the erotic content. Uninterested, he would leave the hardcore scenes to his assistant or his cinematographer. As someone points out in the documentary, Rollin made subversive films, but pornography and subversion are incompatible.

THE STRAY DREAMER tracks Rollin to the end of his life. Thankfully, he lived long enough to see his work recognized and honored. Fighting illness, time running out on him, Rollin continued working, introducing biographical elements in his last few films, as if trying to tie everything up. At the end, he went all the way back to the very beginning, in a bittersweet attempt to complete his first feature, L’ITINERAIRE MARIN. Tragically, the surviving negative was accidentally destroyed on the very day he went to pick it up. Perhaps, he said, shrugging, it was a film that was never meant to be finished. Jean Rollin passed away on December 15, 2010.

For anyone who doesn’t know Jean Rollin, THE STRAY DREAMER is a fascinating introduction to one of a kind film director and his uncommon body of work. For his fans, it’s like spending an intimate hour with the man himself. In an anecdote from the film, a friend of Rollin once told him that he had no opinion about his films because Rollin filmed his dreams and all you could do was watch and dream along. That is as perfect an approach to Jean Rollin’s films as anyone could suggest. Watch, and dream along.

Visit the webpage for JEAN ROLLIN: LE RÊVEUR ÉGARÉ, with a teaser trailer (in French).

Emanuelle Around the World [1977]

The Black Emanuelle movies are a mixed bag of softcore smut, hardcore porn, horrific violence, disco fashion, and bizarre politics of both the gender and global varieties. A slice of the larger cinematic pie that is the Emanuelle/ Emmanuelle universe, these vehicles for Javanese actress Laura Gemser are arguably the most outraeous offerings spawned by Just Jaeckin’s “Emmanuelle,” a 1974 adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan’s novel. Gemser’s Emanuelle is a globe-hopping photographer whose work spans the range of fashion, art, and journalism, providing her with ample opportunities to meet colorful characters and get into erotic rendezvous of every imaginable configuration. The madcap pacing and bizarro tonal shifts of the films delight me more than I care to admit, but I’ve come to discover that their appeal is far from universal. Apparently there are folks out there who don’t care for movies that car-crash steamy lesbian gropings into faux snuff footage, as happens in “Emanuelle in America.”

A wise poet once said “for the lessons of life, there is no better teacher than the look in the eyes of a child.” Sometimes, we need to take a look at the world through inexperienced eyes, and in that spirit, I decided it was high time that Baron XIII took in his first Emanuelle movie. In opting for “Emanuelle Around the World,” I figured it was a kindness–far gentler than the glorious excess of “Emanuelle in America.” Little did I know how brainfuckling an experience these movies can be for the unsuspecting viewer. Fifteen minutes and three cities into the film, the Baron had already broken through to Dull Headache territory, and by the time the cringe-inducing caricature of a Chinese slaver (who may or may not be named “Alton Brown”) was forcing a woman to have sex with a dog, he was right round the bend. I honestly feel bad for just having noted the lack of bestiality five minutes prior to this scene.
Emanuelle Around the World [1977]
“Emanuelle Around the World” follows the intrepid, liberated photojournalist on her quest to bring down an intricate network forcing women into sexual slavery. What ensues is a series of vignettes of only-sometimes-consensual sexual activity in a variety of exotic locales. Emanuelle is like that annoying Facebook friend who posts pictures of herself standing in front of famous stuff, like you wouldn’t believe she went to Washington, DC, without a picture of her grinning broadly in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Except instead of “grinning in front of the Lincoln Memorial,” she’s doffing her clothes for a lesbian encounter inside of a beautiful room tiled in classical Islamic style (yes, I realize that is pretty much a Wrongness Hall Of Mirrors). Emanuelle’s adventure takes her from swank hotels in Manhattan to the compound of an Indian sex guru (played by George Eastman, who is super-duper-not Indian) to a Roman villa-cum-bordello (is that a pun?) to a slaver’s dungeon in Hong Kong. Is it an elegant example of circularity that Emanuelle winds up back in New York under the Brooklyn Bridge with a bunch of high-powered hedonists in the film’s climactic scene? Probably not, but it’s worth noting for those with a more academic bent of mind. When absolutely everything about a movie is so stratospherically insane, perhaps “intent” is the craziest thing of all.
Emanuelle Around the World [1977]
Capitalizing on ideas of free love and women’s liberation, “Emanuelle Around the World” has plentiful scenes of Laura Gemser’s Emanuelle sexing it up with men and women in a variety of combinations. The world is just one big turn-on for this lady and she’s not about to let conventional mores get in the way of her humping-related activities. She exchanges some rather unconvincing political rhetoric surrounding the issue of sexual slavery (all of which sums up to a Mister Mackey-ish “it’s bad, m’kay?”) with her politician paramour (played by Ivan Rassimov, best know for his roles as creepy madmen).
Emanuelle Around the World [1977]
Beneath the free love facade, the feminism of this movie is pretty damn sketchy and–to me anyway–fairly hilarious. If feminism had been invented by someone in the Pickup Artist movement, it would be a lot like this. There’s an exchange within the first few minutes of the movie that sets the tone. Emanuelle runs from a hotel room, nude after an attempted rape, only to fall into the arms of a nattily be-suited gentleman, who tells her: “I’m a man who detests violence, but without your clothes, you really are quite provocative.” And this is the way the movie determines he is probably a good guy because he manages to… you know… not rape the protagonist who has just escaped another different rape. This is a movie that ends on a light-hearted, happy note because only characters you’re not really attached to get especially gruesomely abused.
Emanuelle Around the World [1977]
That kind of political incorrectness is to be expected from grindhouse offerings like this. What might not be as expected is the way that naughty comedy sits right beside scenes intended to horrify. Emanuelle’s adventures in India have a distinctly flirty feel to them–she witnesses an all-girl kama sutra training session, beds an innocent cultist, and comes to discover that the love guru overseeing it all has what I shall gently term “Endurance Issues.” Her visit to Rome is a whole different kettle of fish*, however, as she and her friends are kidnapped and forced to participate in an uncomfortably graphic rape orgy. What’s especially jaw-dropping about that sequence is that THE VERY NEXT SCENE after the rape orgy is Emanuelle and pals emerging from a cab, all smiles, asserting that the guilty parties will surely go to jail. All’s well that ends well, clearly!
*When you have Scottish relatives, sayings like this creep into your vocabulary. I REFUSE TO APOLOGIZE.
Emanuelle Around the World [1977]
After the movie was over, a rather shell-shocked Baron XIII turned to me and asked what he was supposed to feel. I don’t have a good answer to that question. Perhaps it’s a mix of emotions, like all the best art: a little bit of fremdschamen for the ethnic actors portraying terrible stereotypes, a little bit of envy of people who were able to make a living peddling filth like this to unwitting filmgoers, and more than a little bit of arousal at the less-rapey portions of the film. Or maybe you’re just supposed to feel dirty and guilty. I can’t hope to understand the motivations of Joe D’Amato in making this movie, but I can certainly salute the end product for its perfect crystallization of the concept of Guilty Pleasure.