Thursday, March 29, 2012

Femme au Miroir: Jean Rollin's Requiem for a Vampire (1973)

Eloquent, expressive and altogether haunting, Jean Rollin’s fourth feature film,
1971’s Vierges et Vampires (Requiem for a Vampire) shows him as an artist totally in control of his own art and totally separate from anyone else in cinema before or since.

Rollin admitted in his introduction to Requiem for a Vampire in Virgins and Vampires that by 1971 he was, “used to the critics insults, the public outcry” and that with the film he, “started shooting for (his own) personal pleasure exclusively since the others had rejected” his past works. It’s that striking spirit of independence that finds its way into every frame of Requiem for a Vampire, a totally secure and confident work that has our guy making one of the purest Jean Rollin films imaginable.

For fans of Jean Rollin’s oeuvre, the images in Requiem for a Vampire are legendary. The opening shots Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent dressed as clowns in a never explained high speed shoot out to the many shots of the two of them walking alone and in silence through fields, an empty cemetery and a ruined castle will be chill inducing for admirers of Rollin. A friend once spoke of Requiem for a Vampire reverentially by stating that in the hands of anyone else it would have been an incredibly boring and poor piece of filmmaking, but Jean Rollin’s uncompromising and beautifully singular style makes it all seem so profound and moving.

Attempting to replay the minimal plot of Requiem for a Vampire is a bit senseless. Rollin stated in Virgins and Vampires that the work was “an attempt to simplify the structure of a film to an extreme” and it does so with remarkable veracity. One can imagine the film set to an unwritten opera by Philip Glass or Terry Riley as it contains so many of the repetitive and hypnotic methods inherent in much if the minimalist music that was beginning to come out of the period. Along with being a love letter to a particular style he had perfected, Rollin is clearly building his own mythology with Requiem for a Vampire and he would recount to Peter Blumenstock in Virgins and Vampires as well as Video Watchdog that he was more and more making, “references to (his) earlier films” and that he was looking to, “connects dreams and stories like a construction system and (that) the audience can make their own thing out of it.”

Requiem for a Vampire is a bit of a hard film to nail down. Cohill and Tombs would state the film works as a, “straight horror film and an exploration of personal mythology.” in Immoral Tales but it strays as far from the idea of a ‘straight horror’ film as possible at times. Surprisingly comic (an early sequence involving Castel and an outdoors street vendor is one of the silliest and most infectiously fun moments in Rollin’s canon), undeniably erotic and strikingly mournful, Rollin’s fourth film is a work that defies categorization. Perhaps Rollin himself placed it in the best context when he wrote in Virgins and Vampires that, “excluding the timid erotic scenes”, the work, “could be a film for children made by children”, and that finally it is very much, “a fairy tale.”

Shot quickly in and around the ruins of a dungeon owned by the Duchess of Roche-Guyon, Rollin recalled in Encore’s booklet for the film’s special edition DVD release that it had all come from a spidery script, “written naively without thought, almost in automatic writing, without prior idea and above all without reflection. It’s nothing else but a simple stream of ideas out of an unconstrained imagination.” While the film is controlled by the lovely team of Castel and Dargent (whom Rollin recalls on Encore’s commentary track as two girls he loved that hated each other) other familiar faces pop up throughout its less than ninety minute running time including the hypnotically strange Dominique and musician turned actress Louise Dhour (featured in a terrific interview on Encore’s set), who would be so memorable in Rollin’s 1974 production, Demoniacs.

Inspired by the paintings by Paul Delvaux, and working with a young but stylish cinematographer named Renon Polles, Jean Rollin injects every frame of Requiem for a Vampire with a striking and languid authority. Not in a hurry and delighting in capturing moments that other filmmakers would scoff at, Jean Rollin has by this point totally perfected the deliberately slow and mesmerizing pace that so many of his fans have come to worship and revere over the years. The director himself would state in Encore’s booklet about his most “childish and personal” film that he “was beginning to obtain a certain authority” in his command of the medium, and it's not a stretch to say that every film he has made since owes at least something to the evocative images of Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent running from something unseen throughout this, one of his most iconic and necessary works.

The near silent (dialogue wise) Requiem for a Vampire would have a fairly successful run in France and throughout parts of Europe but not surprisingly it was butchered for its US release, and retitled with the wincingly exploitative Caged Virgins moniker. Widely considered one of the best Rollin films, the film is available on a bare bones Region 1 DVD from Redemption (featuring a solid visual presentation) as well as several varying DVDs throughout England and Europe.
Collectors and lovers of Rollin’s work should seek out Encore’s impressive three disc box set which features a beautiful print (I have read some complaints stating that the picture is slightly squeezed but honestly on my player and computer it looks just beautiful) and a terrific set of extras (many of which I have already highlighted in previous posts). Hardcore collectors are advised to seek out the old Something Weird VHS under the title of Caged Virgins, which features some needless additional footage that all but destroys Rollin’s deliberately maintained and incredibly effective pacing.

Called, “a definitive work of French fantastic cinema, post 1970.” By Tim Lucas in the pages of Video Watchdog 31, Requiem for a Vampire is one of the most ideal introductions to Jean Rollin’s filmography to newcomers. It is also one of the most representative and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a person who isn’t won of by the delightfully different and distinctive images in Requiem for a Vampire will sadly always probably fall outside of the circle of Jean Rollin fans.

***The soundtrack for Requiem for a Vampire has just been released by Finders Keepers and it will make its Blu-ray debut in May, courtesy of Kino and Redemption.***


Eliot Blades said...

Great review - one of my fave Rollins from the early days of Redemption UK's VHS releases.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack recently released by Finders Keeper's appears to be a straight rip from the film's audio, rather than original soundtrack recordings, so the music is constantly disrupted with the sound of the girls walking, talking, clothes rustling, etc.

Ed Howard said...

I've been watching some Rollin recently (more or less chronologically) and just caught up with this one, which is great indeed. Definitely Rollin's most abstract and minimalist film to that point, the narrative here has been boiled away to almost nothing, there's hardly any dialogue, and it's just all about the atmosphere. Great, great stuff, though the dungeon torture scene is pretty gratuitous and excessively long.

With the languid pace and beautiful girls and strange atmosphere, it kinda reminds me of a Jacques Rivette movie with occasional softcore scenes spliced in.

james1511 said...

Glad to see this is getting the treatment from Kino. I have the Redemption UK disc, which is nice but incomprehensibly non-anamorphic (not to mention that it's also the shorter UK version, obviously). Hopefully the new edition will rectify those considerations.

Eliot Blades said...

The dungeon torture scene, which is missing from the original UK versions, was shot under duress by Rollin I believe. It was not part of Rollin's original vision for the film and works far better without it.