Director: Jean Rollin
By Roderick Heath
Jean Rollin was a whole grain cinema anarchist and one of the relatively few French horror directors of his time. He began with homemade shorts and rose all the way to directing homemade features. His films skirt soft-core pornography and, when circumstances require, plunge right in. But he’s also one of the most authentic poets every to take up the art form. Rollin debut feature, Le Viol du Vampire (1967) arose from several shorts he was asked to make for a French distributor who needed to fill out a bill sporting a short American vampire film. Rollin The resulting film was a predictably uneven, but attention-winning mish-mash of surrealism, Grand Guignol, and black humor.
Rollin became one of the few true heirs to arise from a long tradition of Parisian underground cinema whose forebears include Feuillade and Bunuel, as well as French Gothic literature (Leroux was his favorite author), and the vast, semivisible world of European S&M comics (one of the major artists of which, Druillet, designed Rollins’ posters and appeared in Le Viol). Visually, Rollin’s films, with their semiclothed females arranged in geometric forms and intensely fetishist poses, recreate that style vividly. As in Feuillade and the early Dali-Bunuel collaborations, he utilised Paris, that marvellous free set, and set up against it the most bizarre and impossible images he could concoct.
His masterpiece is Lèvres de Sang. When I say masterpiece I maintain proportions. It’s not a film as free from defects and soaring in its ambitions as Les Enfants du Paradis or The Seven Samurai. In the murky realm of ’70s Euro-cinema, experimental, genre, and off-beat directors maintained their careers by spicing their films with nudity to satisfy fleapit theatre crowds and the distributors who serviced them. For Rollin, this was hardly a problem; he was dedicated eroticist, and his films enact the sexual aspects most horror films depict only metaphorically. They’re adult fairy tales, dressed in gothic-erotic clothing. To see how good Rollin was at this, it’s an easy task to compare the unembarrassed sexuality of Lèvres de Sang with any late-period Hammer film, say, Twins Of Evil (1972), or, to aim higher, see how he outclasses the efforts of Ken Russell.
In Lèvres de Sang, Rollin presents an uncompromisingly direct study of the incestuous that underlies many vampire mythology which has corrupt ancestors heave off the lids of their tombs and spread disease and death among their descendants. Simultaneously, Lèvres de Sang succeeds in capturing a note of wistful longing for the scenes, hints, landscapes, people that remain on the very horizon of childhood memory, which can, thanks to some small evocation—the right tint of light, a smell, a familiar face—lance right through your adult perceptions and memories to present unfulfilled chances and unanswered questions, even mysteries.
The film begins in a dank crypt where a middle-aged woman with a girlish face, wearing a veil and furs, is supervising men who are placing in the crypt several coffins. Cut to an exterior shot of a ruined chateau—a pull-back reveals it’s just a photo on the wall of a Parisian apartment, where a Bunuel-boring society party is occurring. A man in his thirties, tall, blonde-haired Frédéric (Jean-Lou Philippe, who also cowrote the screenplay with Rollin), is stricken in fascination by the image to the point of ignoring his girlfriend. He shakes himself from his reverie and finds her lounging on a divan with a black-haired woman, who, in reply to Frédéric’s compliment of her perfume, suggests a pretty smell is like a memory or a beautiful woman, the most precious and transitory of thrills.
Frédéric drops into a memory. As a boy, lost at night, he entered the ruin. Dwelling within it was a teenaged girl (Anne Briand) with short brown hair, a pale face, red lips, and draped in white clothes, who greeted him with delicate affection and settled him down to sleep for the night. In the morning, before dawn, she woke him up to send him on his way home. As he rushed from the ruin, he shut the gate, locking her in, but he called back that he loved her and would return to free her.
Frédéric’s girlfriend finds his preoccupation sufficient to walk off in a huff. Frédéric asks guests about the picture, but no one knows the place it depicts. Frédéric appeals to his mother, who we recognise is the woman from the opening, and tries to explain the striking memory the photo evokes. The girl haunts him and, as he says, “I love her the way you love at twelve.” There are yawning holes in Frédéric’s childhood recollections, apparently caused by the traumatising death of his father. His mother impatiently, and a touch desperately, denies the event occurred. Frédéric is unconvinced, and gets a lead from another guest about a photographer who took the shot. This is the black-haired lady, who, when he visits her salon, is busy taking nude photos of a model (a quick-forward remote is advisable here, unless of course you dig it). The photographer tells Frédéric she was paid to keep the location of the ruin secret, but finds him sufficiently attractive (the advantages of coauthoring the script) that she promises to look up the location and meet him later, when she’ll be on a midnight photo shoot at the Paris Aquarium.
To waste time until the rendezvous, Frédéric goes to a movie theatre (showing what looks awfully like one of Rollin’s earlier films) and spies a familiar figure standing in the rear exit. Borrowing an usher’s flashlight, he sees it’s the girl of his memory before she disappears. He pursues her outside and sees her by the gates of Montmartre Cemetery. Bewildered but determined, Frédéric climbs the gate and follows her intermittent appearances until they lead him into the familiar crypt. Frédéric breaks open the coffins, and finds bats grotesquely entangled in shrouds. Frédéric runs off, and the bats turn into young vampire women—draped in see-through shrouds, natch—who look like bloodsucking, heroin-chic fashion models. Most striking are a pair of twins (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel), who begin stalking the rain-gleaming Parisian streets. Frédéric, unaware of this, encounters a tragic-looking woman wearing too much make-up,who claims to be the girl from the castle. But she’s only a paid decoy who lures him into a room and locks him up. He is freed by the twins, who have torn the woman’s throat out.
Frédéric arrives at the Aquarium, where he passes a suspicious man (who resembles a homicidal Ron Burgundy) and finds the photographer, murdered, in one of the displays. Frédéric pursues the assassin onto a metro train, where his quarry pulls a gun on him. Frédéric escapes from the train, jumps off an overpass, and is pursued. He is saved again by the vampires, who turn on a fountain, obscuring Frédéric from the assassin’s aim. Frédéric, distraught, goes to his mother for help, but she has him hauled away by the men in white coats. Frédéric is brought straitjacketed before a psychiatrist, who cheerfully proposes using shock treatment on him, but finds—in the film’s funniest pay-off—his two nurses are actually the vampire twins, and they kill the good doctor. Frédéric is free, but without hope of solving the mystery until the girl appears beside a blind postcard seller, pointing to one of the cards; it shows the chateau and its location.
Frédéric reaches the chateau, to find the vampire girls have congregated there. He penetrates the ruin and finds the belongings of the teenaged girl, and a sealed coffin, inside of which she lies with a pin in her heart. His mother appears and explains that the girl is his older sister, Jennifer. Made a vampire at the age of 16, she killed Frédéric’s father and created the other vampires, who terrorized the countryside. The mother staked Jennifer, but could not bring herself to behead her or the other girls, so they were all imprisoned. Her tolerance is at an end. Outside, her paid killers hunt down and stake the vampire girls, and she requests that Frédéric perform the coup-de-grace of beheading his sister to end the evil. As the bodies of the vampires are incinerated in a pit, Frédéric appears with a severed head—but it is actually from one of the girl’s dolls—that he throws in the fire. When his mother and the men have left, Frédéric removes the pin from Jennifer’s heart. She awakens and the pair celebrate their joyful reunion. She explains that though she was paralysed, she had learned to project her thoughts, which is how she could appear to him. After having sex on the beach, she turns him into a vampire, and they seal themselves in a coffin to drift on the sea to an island where they will live off shipwrecked sailors.
This is a splendidly antisocial twist on the traditional imperative of the vampire story, particularly of stories like Le Fanu’s Carmilla, where the lesbian title character must be destroyed so the patriarchy remains unthreatened (and yet, Rollin comes closer than anyone else to capturing the nocturne tone of Le Fanu’s writing). In a less imaginative film, the image of threatening female sexuality would be obliterated, and the man’s need to transgress, to break beyond the boundaries of society and memory dully punished or be retracted. Or worse yet, in the modern mould, the triumph of evil would be a facile punchline. Instead it’s an oddly idealistic finale, reminiscent of Pasolini’s principles. Frédéric blindly believes, from the beginning, that Jennifer’s lost, wounded, caring beauty is worth defying death, madness, and all social values, and remains true to this instinct to the end.
Even as Jennifer’s vampire acolytes are murderous, the mother’s methods of keeping the secret safe, the disease trapped, are just as bad. The brutality of the standard vampire-killing–phallic penetration by staking–is highlighted by the forlorn sight of the twins, a stake having gone right through one into the other, sinking to death clutching each other like children. The news that Jennifer killed his father only seems to confirm that her chief crime was not vampirism, but up-ending the bourgeois family structure. The patriarchy was destroyed early, and their mother’s compensatory, viciously repressive matriarchy is finally outwitted. There is a sorrow to the finale as well as a liberation. Though Frédéric and Jennifer have found each other, death is death, no matter how animated.
Thematically interesting as Lèvres de Sang is, it exists entirely to justify Rollin’s creation of gorgeously weird images, and evocation of a rare, haunted mood. Few other films in the genre that approach its sonorus, alien poetry, oddities like Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) and John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971); only Fellini’s 8½ (1963) equals it for evoking how childhood recollections bleed into the present. Dotted through the film are memorable touches, essayed in what is, considering the film’s miniscule budget, obscenely pretty, silk-textured cinematography by Jean-François Robin.
At the party, where a bunch of teenagers, flagrantly dressed down, dart between the evening-dressed guests and pinch food from the buffet. The tableaux vivant shots of the vampire girls around the chateau, semiclothed by wind-wafting silks. The hilarious-horrible flashback out of a BDSM comic where the vampire girls drag a nude, chained victim to their lair. The starkly nasty sight of the dead photographer, lying upside-down, bare-breasted and bloodless on water-washed rocks. The scenes where Frédéric pursues and is pursued by the assassin, which evoke Hitchcock, Lang, and Feuillade. Frédéric kissing the dollhead’s lips in the deathly chill of dawn, and his mother’s veiled face stony in triumph. And the finale, a symphony of images (Jennifer invokes an orchestra in the sounds of nature, “conducted by a madman!”), with Frédéric and Jennifer’s entwined, naked forms; Jennifer standing like the human equivalent of the Wicker Man, arms raised in a rite of primal nature worship; the chilling hint as Frédéric lowers himself into the coffin and stops momentarily to study her fine but deathly still face. Their coffin, buffeted by the waves, brushing against the black ribs of a groin, finally floating out into the ship-ridden sea.
Lèvres de Sang was a flop, satisfying neither horror buffs out for blood nor porn patrons, and it’s easy to see why. It’s actually an assertion of primal innocence and places both gore and sex at the disposal of its playful narrative. Rollin survived–just–and limped along under various pseudonyms before nearly recapturing some of his old intensity with Fascination (1979) and La Nuit des Traqueés (1980), both featuring Brigitte Lahaie who, later, added memorable erotic shape to Henry & June (1990). l