Sunday, 22 August 2010
La Vampire Nue / ‘The Nude Vampire’
(Jean Rollin, 1970)
Before we begin, I recommend clicking the image above for a full size look at Phillipe Druillet’s incredible poster artwork for “La Vampire Nue”. If pushed, I’d probably nominate Druillet’s posters for the first three Jean Rollin films as my favourite movie posters of all time, and I was thrilled to find a scan of this one large enough for us to appreciate the detail.
Throughout his life, the great French director and film theorist George Franju (best known to horror fans as director of stonecold classic “Yeux sans Visage”/”Eyes Without A Face” (1959)) seems to have dedicated a great deal of his time to explaining and demonstrating his conception of ‘mystery’ in cinema. Put simply, Franju’s ‘mystery technique’ centres on the narrative filmmaker’s ability to withhold information from his/her audience, introducing striking and irrational imagery and refusing to explain its significance, inspiring the viewer with a delightful mixture of fascination, fear and uncertainty.
When examined shot by shot, Franju’s films are full of subtle variations of this technique, but one of the clearest examples can be seen in one of the early scenes of “Judex” (1963), in which we see groups of masked jazz age aristocrats converging upon the bright lights of a grand hotel, where a costume party is about to begin. The camera focuses in on a tall, elegantly dressed man, and panning from his feet upwards we see that he has the head of a bird of prey, just like a figure from a Max Ernst book. For a few seconds longer than is strictly necessary he stands motionless, looking away from the party, then turns and heads inside.
Who is this bird-headed man? Where did he come from, what does he want? Naturally we get the answers eventually, at the director’s leisure. But, as any mystic or ghost-hunting weirdo knows, the rational explanations are far less memorable than the exquisite frisson of not knowing.
On one level, this very practical use of ‘mystery’ allowed Franju to instantly generate, with a single scene or shot, the kind of audience reaction that old fashioned mystery writers might have spent a whole novel trying to capture, whilst on another level it played directly into the director’s oft-stated dedication to surrealism, tying him into a whole noble pantheon of cinema that revels in withholding ‘explanation’ from its audience, from Bunuel through to David Lynch.
Although they ostensibly found themselves working at the opposite ends of the European film industry, I’ve always felt that George Franju and Jean Rollin have a lot in common. After all, both directors draw deeply from a love of French popular culture, comics and silent movie serials, and produced works rich in beautiful, poetic surrealism, both helping to bridge the gap between art-house and the grind-house with the consummate ease of the truly crazed. I’m not sure whether the two men ever met midway across that bridge, but if they did I’m sure they would have had a lot to talk about.
What I am sure of is that, whether by accident or design, Rollin’s extraordinary second feature “La Vampire Nue” finds him taking hold of Franju’s ‘mystery theory’ and stretching it out to absolute lunatic extremes, opening his film with over half an hour of glorious, beautiful bafflement. I mean, clearly no one who knows anything about Rollin goes into one of his films expecting a clearly defined, linear narrative, but even by his standards, the opening of “..Nue” is pretty singular.
We begin with a masked woman in a transparent knit dress being led into a laboratory by a group of men in lab coats and ceremonial red masks (except from the one who wears an ugly looking black animal mask). The men strip the woman, but leave her mask on, and take a blood sample from her arm. Foreboding, dissonant strings and a torturous dripping tap dominate the soundtrack. Brightly coloured liquids (red, blue, purple, yellow) are decanted into test tubes and beakers, and shaken up in a, um, shaking machine, or something. By this stage, doleful European modal jazz seems to have taken over on the soundtrack and the dripping has ceased.
Three minutes in. Can you picture people walking out of the cinema yet?
Cut to an outdoor location, late at night. A woman with bright red hair (Caroline Cartier), wearing a diaphanous orange gown, sneaks through the gates of a walled town-house as dogs bark loudly. Soon she finds herself pursued by a gang of black-clad men wearing grotesque animal masks (a stag, a pig, a bull, a cockerel). As she flees down a flight of stairs, she encounters a young man (Pierre, played by Olivier Martin), his trusting eyes and square-jawed chump appearance immediately marking him out as our ‘hero’ figure. They stare at each other silently, and the girl touches his face.
The animal men, the stag-man now brandishing a pistol, trap our couple on a railway bridge. With no further ado, the stag-man shoots the girl, who falls down dead. Pierre follows the animal-men as they carry her body back to the entrance of the stately home, and lock the gate behind them. Almost immediately, a group of well dressed socialites approach the gate, and are welcomed inside. Pierre tries to tag along with them, but the doorkeeper tells him to get lost.
In the next scene, we see Pierre sitting in decadent surroundings being ministered to by two identical, black-haired girls (the Castel twins, who went on to feature in most of Rollin’s subsequent vampire films) clad in chainmail skirts and strange arrangements of small, hanging mirrors that cover their breasts. An older man who is apparently Pierre’s father enters. They begin arguing, apparently about what Pierre saw last night. “Do you want money, women? You can have plenty – but stay out of my business”, the father tells his son.
Here the mood breaks slightly for a sequence in which Pierre’s father and his two ‘business associates’ appear to be auditioning some Jess Franco-style erotic nightclub acts in their basement. Well, why not? Backstage, a girl in clown make-up and a ring bearing a prominent red-on-black “A” symbol is on the phone, covertly reporting back to her spymasters.
Next we return to Pierre, who is again trying to infiltrate the well-dressed partygoers who seem to solemnly arrive at the gates to his father’s townhouse each evening. Once inside, Pierre finds himself apparently taking part in a silent, mystifying suicide ritual, wherein one of the attendees sees his or her photograph projected on a small screen, whereupon s/he walks to the front of the room and is handed a pistol with which s/he blows his/her brains out. At this point, the attendees don their blue ceremonial hoods (just like the one the woman was wearing in the opening lab scene), and the curtains at the front of the room rise, revealing a fully functional gothic parlour and staircase from which the girl in the orange gown emerges, apparently resurrected, accompanied by the now-robed animal men, and proceeds to consume the blood of the deceased, vampire style.
And so it goes on. Other things happen. Pierre is rescued from the animal-men by a sword-wielding Asian woman who promptly disappears. Shortly after the twenty minute mark, he bumps into the film’s distinctly unwell looking head-vampire-guy, played by Rollin regular Michel Delahaye. “You will find your father in his office my son”, says head-vampire guy, “you must go there at once, other mysteries await you”.
By this point, there will be two kinds of viewers: those who are aggravated beyond words by the film’s bloodyminded refusal to make any sense, and those who are instead overwhelmed with joy, enthralled by the staggering, inspired confusion they are witnessing. If you’re still reading this blog, I’ll take a guess and assume for your own sake that you fall within the latter category.
Key to the success of the ‘mystery technique’ Rollin is running wild with here is the implied promise that a fixed meaning lies beneath the perplexing imagery. Any filmmaker can throw together a hallucinatory stew of abstract, personal imagery, and the result, more often than not, will be boredom rather than fascination. To engage an audience used to following a story, a director must imbue his/her images with a surety of purpose, a thread of continuity, that lets us know there IS meaning in there somewhere, that clarity and understanding are close by, just around the next corner. It is only by keeping the audience thinking, by firing their imagination as they struggle to make sense of the events unfolding before them, that the mystery can be realised. One only need look at Lynch’s “Lost Highway” or “Mulholland Drive” for a masterful demonstration of this principle at work.
Of course, whether or not the long-promised explanation actually emerges is entirely down to the whims of the filmmaker. Lynch prefers to simply pull the rug from under us, hammering us into submission with terrifying audio-visual overload whenever dark secrets look set to be revealed, but Rollin, like Franju, is more of an old fashioned gentleman in regard to such matters, and usually seems to feel a responsibility to stitch the excesses of his imagination together into some semblance of logical cohesion for us.
It’s no secret that Rollin essentially works backwards when planning his films, beginning with a collection of shots, images, characters and locations that strike a chord with him, and gradually trying to scrape together a narrative that will allow him to realise his ideas, often after shooting has already begun. And in “La Vampire Nue”, we can see this process at work more transparently than ever. When Pierre’s father gets around to explaining the film’s bizarrely convoluted storyline about halfway through the film, the sheer vagueness and twisted logic of his schemes seems wonderfully, naively absurd – clearly little more than an elaborate ruse by Rollin to justify the fevered outbursts of dream-imagery that begin the film. But all the same, it’s sweet that he made the effort.
Why, the more logically minded viewer will want to scream, do Dad and his cronies say that they insist that everyone must wear masks in the presence of the vampire girl so that she will never see another human being and realise how different she is, when.. (pauses for breath).. when she herself looks exactly like a human being, and a very attractive specimen of one at that? What kind of sense does that make? That and about a hundred other questions.
BUT STOP! This is a Jean Rollin movie. We are asking questions. That is the wrong approach. Just let it go. When the end comes, you’ll be happy. I mean, everyone likes the beach, right?
Since Rollin went on to establish himself as a reliable purveyor of horror and sex films (if admittedly pretty eccentric ones) during the ‘70s, it’s easy for fans to forget that his early work veered far closer to the spirit of France’s ‘60s avant garde than even the man himself (who claims to have had little time for the nouvelle vague) would care to admit.
Filmed essentially as a kind of semi-improvised lark by Rollin and a gang of his art world / counter-culture pals, “..Nue”s predecessor “Le Viol du Vampire” (“Rape of the Vampire”) was famously greeted with violent outrage by cinemagoers when a shortage of new films in Paris due to the May ’68 protests led to it opening as a standalone feature. Playing to a wider audience than Rollin probably ever imagined, it made the young director a divisive and notorious figure.
And indeed, it’s easy to see how a contemporary crowd expecting a horror film would be shocked and enraged having something like “Le Viol..” thrust upon them. For one thing, it is surprising how much Rollin's first film keeps sex and horror content to a minimum (although a few touches of matter of fact nudity might have scandalised a 1968 audience even more), concentrating instead on a giddy mixture of disjointed experimentation, gallic cool, frantic, chaotic action and free jazz that in another world could have gone down a storm with the era’s agitated hipsters, coming across more like the work of a stoned Godard getting frisky in the graveyard than something you’d file alongside the ‘70s sleaze-mongers who are usually seen as Rollin’s contemporaries.
Sadly though, the hypocrisy of contemporary film culture put a brisk stop to that idea, with critics systematically ignoring the film’s obvious artistry and innovation – qualities that surely would have been foremost in reviewers’ minds if the picture had been marketed as an ‘art’ rather than horror film. Instead, “Le Viol..” was universally dismissed as incoherent, amateurish garbage, a circumstance that, combined with the film’s unexpected infamy, doomed Rollin to a marginal career that is dictated to this day by the whims of the few people who actually liked his movie: exploitation producers and weirdo sex/horror fans.
As such, “Nue” is very much a transitory work for Rollin. If not his first film funded by an established producer (“Viol” was made with backing from the eccentric Sam Selsky), it was nonetheless his first film as a professional director, his first with professional actors, his first in colour, and, most importantly, the first that he knew would be marketed as an erotic horror movie.
Nonetheless, much of the free-wheeling artistry of “Viol..” remains, insofar as it would remain in even the least palatable entires on Rollin’s subsequent CV; in the sheer, daring insanity of the imagery, in the head-scratching excuse for a ‘story’, and in Yvon Gerault’s experimental score, which mixes Ligetti-esque strings, AMM-like electro-acousitc burbling and menacing low-end feedback.
But “Nue..” is also much more consciously horror film and a sex film than “Viol”. For the first time in Rollin, we have voyeuristic stripping/nudity footage, gratuitous boob close-ups and peek-a-boo full frontal shots, together with a profusion of wonderfully bizarre erotic dance routines and ambiguous dom/sub characters that serve to take the film on a joyride deep into the heart of Jess Franco territory – all a deliberate nod to the sex hungry audiences whose appetites were starting to monopolise European b-movie production by the end of the ‘60s.
The role of sex in Rollin films has always been an uneasy one; scene-by-scene breakdowns of his stories can easily make them sound like works of grotesque, lunatic sleaze, but fans (myself included) have long tried to argue that his films are in fact remarkable for the extent to which they lack the offputtingly lurid atmosphere of most European sexploitation. It’s difficult to define how or why, but Rollin is one of the only directors in cinema who is somehow able to film this sort of gratuitous, fetishistic smut without seeming sleazy.
Perhaps it has something to do with the way Rollin’s lens seems to approach sexual content from a gentle, naïve point of view, or the way that his actors perform these scenes with the same slow, ritualistic, expressionist style that they often adopt for other scenes in the movies?
It would be wrong to try to claim Rollin had no interest in the more prurient aspects of soft porn aesthetics, but, even in the sleaziest of the films he made under his own name (from his ‘70s output, I’d vote this one and “Les Démoniaques”), there is a kind of happy, humanistic approach at work that makes even the most ridiculous and exploitative situations seem strangely palatable. I’m really at a loss to explain it in fact… the way that some directors in the horror/exploitation field seem unable to film a woman getting on a bus without making themselves seem to slavering pervs, whereas Rollin can film two teenagers being chained up and whipped in a castle basement and make the whole thing feel quite innocent and relaxed..? Just one of life’s mysteries I suppose.
The central erotic focus of “La Vampire Nue” is undoubtedly the Castel twins. As the Pierre's father’s weird personal maid servants/human pets, their presence is completely incidental to the, er, ‘story’, but Rollin’s camera just can’t get enough of them.
Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the twins, and the shifting characters they embody, went on to become a huge part of Rollin’s personal mythos, taking an increasingly central (and less overtly sexual) role in his films and stories, until we reach later, more self-reflexive works such as “Lost in New York” (1989) and “Two Orphan Vampires”(1997), that make it clear that the nameless twins have in fact always been the central characters of the strange, kaleidoscopic story Rollin has been telling all his life.
Whilst the twins might not be granted much in the way of character development or independent existence in “La Vampire Nue”, it is nonetheless the first time that Rollin’s more general fascination with the visual possibilities of identical twins comes to the fore, as the Castels become the catalyst for a playful obsession with capturing moments of complete symmetry in the mise en scene that seems to continue throughout the film, aided to a large degree by the pleasantly symmetrical architecture of the chateau in which the second half of the film takes place.
At one point, we see the twins emerge simultaneously from identical doors on the left and right of the screen, and slowly descend two identical staircases in perfect harmony – a shot utterly devoid of narrative purpose, but one that captures such a wonderfully perfect symmetry it almost looks as if one side of the frame has been mirrored.
For another shot earlier in the film meanwhile, we see the twins posed in a hilariously unnatural silent tableaux at the feet of their ‘master’, their heads bowed, with the head of a tiger-skin rug between them. Maybe it’s stretching things too far to see this as a conscious wink in the direction of William Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’...? Either way, it’s a wonderful image, yet another of the endless moments of beautiful, ridiculous self-indulgence that make Rollin’s cinema such a constant joy.
Of course, Rollin would go on to explore all of this sort of thing at length in his subsequent career, but another thing that helps make “Nue..” unique in his filmography is it’s revelation of the vast influence of old French pulp serials on his work. Sadly, I can’t claim to be much of an expert on the Gallic ideal of le fantastique that stretches from Allain & Souvestre’s Fantomas stories through Louis Feuillade’s silent film serials to the extraordinary French comics artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I am at least familiar enough with their comings and goings to surmise that criminal secret societies, corporate skulduggery, weird aristocratic villains, theatrical decadence, nocturnal chases, undertones of kinky eroticism, and above all, guys wearing hoods, are all common aspects of the fantastique aesthetic, and all are dutifully incorporated into “La Vampire Nue”.
Even Rollin’s use here of spotlight lighting, heavy shadow and painstakingly symmetrical longshots seems to recall the style of the Feuillade serials, and, as befits this submersion in the imagery of serial fantasy, “Nue” is also the only one of his vampire films that really incoprorates a wider, more detailed kind of vampire mythology into it's structure.
Very much the polar opposite of the stark, existential approach to vampirism that Rollin would later develop in films like “Fascination” (1979) and “Living Dead Girl” (1982), “Nue” rewards us with an insight into a whole garbled universe of vampiric lore, with ambiguous figures of unknown provenance popping in and out of the narrative to pay homage to each other and make veiled declarations of great import, as we slowly learn of the secret order of vampires, and of their powers and methods and goals, and of the strange origins underlying their existence.
It’s a wonderful contradiction, the way that while “La Vampire Nue” presents Rollin at his most abstract and confounding, it’s also perhaps his most plot-heavy, conceptually involved effort, widening the range of his usual gothic horror tropes to take in elements of grand fantasy, conspiracy theory and science fiction, all of it coming to a head in the astonishingly strange, heart-felt metaphysical lecture that Delahaye’s character delivers at the film’s conclusion.
And, this being a Jean Rollin movie, I probably don’t need to tell you the said conclusion takes place AT THE BEACH, a circumstance which in this case actually requires some teleportation to pull off, but hey…. what of it? With blue-skinned, red-haired vampire children, questionably translated talk of mutations and alternate dimensions and a vampire lady emerging from a magic wardrobe amid the rock pools, it is one of the strangest and most unaccountably moving of the cathartic climaxes Rollin has staged against the cliffs and crashing waves of his favourite location in almost every film of his career. You’ve gotta love a guy who sticks to his story, and in Rollin’s case, what a story it is.