Wednesday, 12 January 2011
Memories of Jean Rollin
The death of Jean Rollin at the end of 2010 was a sad blow. No less for the fact that he was still working right up to the end, still planning new films. He was an important figure in the history of what we have come to know as “fantastic” cinema and he was an important figure to Mondo Macabro – our first TV show in the Eurotika! series was a profile of him and his work and the book, Mondo Macabro, was dedicated to him. Above all, he was our friend, and we will miss him. Here MM’s Pete Tombs remembers how he first met Rollin and reflects on the later career of this maverick creator.
I first met Jean Rollin nearly 22 years ago. He was then – a sobering thought – about the age I am now and his film making days, at least in France, were generally considered to be over. He had not had a theatrical release for half a decade. However, he was actively working to set up new deals, developing his writing career and beginning to sell his films to the then burgeoning home video market.
He was one of those people whom you meet and instantly know you will get on with. We started talking about his early films and gradually he opened up and we began to glimpse the man behind the mask – the real Jean Rollin, not “the maker of erotic vampire movies”. Over the following years I got to know him quite well and whenever I was in Paris I would always make that little pilgrimage up the hill to his book lined apartment in the Rue Haxo – not so far from his beloved Pere Lachaise cemetery. He also came to the UK a couple of times, one of them for a retrospective we organised at the National Film Theatre. Seeing the huge NFT 1 screening room packed out with curious fans, Jean was at first trepidacious, but finally delighted and occasionally amused by the subsequent reactions; none less so than when one gushing fan compared Le Viol du vampire to a Godard film!
The visits became less frequent as Jean’s health declined and he was forced to spend several days in hospital each week. On the positive side, this period, from the mid 90s onward, saw a revival of interest in his work, largely due to the video releases of his older films in the US and UK. He also took advantage of the enforced leisure of hospital stays to work on a number of new novels, including a series of six vampire books. When his health permitted he would also attend foreign festivals where he was accorded a warm reception – something he had despaired of in his native France where he was generally derided as a maker of “Z movies”. This overseas interest helped him to raise finance for The Two Orphan Vampires, his return to the film making fray in 1997. The book was based on one of his novels and was even released theatrically in France, albeit briefly.
Slowly, in his native country, Rollin began to be rediscovered by a new generation of young film makers. They admired his resilience and determination to go his own way. He was an inspiration to them and he became a kind of cinematic uncle to a number of up and coming directors. Thanks to Jean-Pierre Dionnet, his films were finally screened on Canal Plus, the large subscription TV channel, and received very strong viewing figures. This made it easier for Rollin to raise the funding for his next cinematic venture – La Fiancée du Dracula, which was first screened in 2002.
This film’s self referential content, and its freewheeling and anarchic style, peopled by a cast of friends and outsider figures from art and music, was very much a return to form – and also very much in the sprit of his first theatrical release, Le Viol du vampire from way back in 1968.
Jean was in poor health, but with his film making enthusiasm undimmed, he began work on his next project – La Nuit des horloges, This was in many ways his “Alice in Wonderland “ with a female figure following a trail of clues and encounters with bizarre characters as she journeys into the strange world of “Michel Jean”, the maverick film maker who has bequeathed her his estate.
The film was full of clips from Rollin’s previous features and yet it was remarkable how much of a piece it all seemed. Proof positive that the inspiration behind his work, right from the very beginning, had always sprung from the same fountainhead. This feeling is underlined by what has now turned out to be his final work - The Mask of Medusa, a kind of cinematic essay. Packed with his customary themes and visual references, it is a playful and now poignant reminder of what a journey he had been on and how his cinematic career was in reality a great circle, bringing him back at last to where he had started - on the isolated beach near Dieppe where his film making dreams had first crystallised as a teenager.
Even in sympathetic circles, Rollin is often described as a maker of “erotic horror films”. I remember one afternoon he was showing me a kind of scrap book, with a collection of his favourite stills and mementoes of his films. He seemed subdued and I asked him if it depressed him, looking back like this. He replied, no, it just made him sad to see that so often what people saw and remembered from his work were the naked scenes – which in so many cases were added at the behest of producers keen to guarantee a return on their investments. But he was wise – and old – enough by then to know that film making is a strange kind of dance in which you have to make two steps in the direction of the money to be able to make that half step back towards your own ambitions.
Rollin was a “gentle man” in the truest sense of the term. In many ways, film making with its retinue of cynics, double dealers and cheapskates was an odd place for such a poetic soul to have ended up. It’s a testament to his fortitude that he was able, Contre vents et marées, as the French say, to have amassed such a large body of work that is so very much his own.
Jean Rollin did not make horror films. He made Rollin films. Shrugging off the dead weight of commercial and critical indifference, he trod his own path, crafting his strange, whimsical and above all personal films for nearly forty five years. He is one of those rare film makers who have created their very own world, one that may be hard to define in the abstract, but is instantly recognisable once you are inside it. It’s not just the physical features – the empty train tracks, the cliffs, the funebrial statuary, the isolated chateaux, the girl vampires bearing candelabra – but the way the characters talk to each other, the way they are placed in the frame, the use of colour; all are expressions of his particular style and personality.
Jean Rollin was a dreamer, but not an escapist. He was a man whose dreams transfigured the everyday and transformed it into something marvellous. He pictured the world the way he wanted it to be – the way it ought to be - and refused to be dragged down by its sordid realities. As Baptiste says, in Les Enfants du paradis – “Dreams and life – it’s the same thing; or else it’s not worth living.” A fitting enough epitaph to the man who was Jean Rollin.