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.