Saturday, 7 July 2018
Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin
Edited by Samm Deighan
I’ve been an admirer of Kier-La Janisse since I first read her excellent tome House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (reviewed here). At the time I think I called it the best book on the overall range of those specific film genres I’d read and I still feel that way. I remember she wrote it, in part, as a reaction to a documentary movie made about her and her Cinemeurte Film Festival, called Celluloid Horror (reviewed here) which is a movie I also think a lot of. So when I heard through the Twitter grapevine that her book label Spectacular Optical was involved in putting together a volume on the cinema of Jean Rollin, one of my favourite French directors, it would be true to say this went straight to the top of my obscure objects of desire list.
That being said, when the book was finally released, it seemed the only way you could get a copy was through the Spectacular Optical website and with a price tag of around $36 ($46 Canadian) with an added cost of postage to the United Kingdom (where I am) which far exceeded the price of the actual tome, if memory serves... well I just couldn’t justify paying that much to get a copy... and believe me, I tried every possible way of getting one into the country via UK stores and sellers that I could think of.
Luckily for me, Ms. Janisse is also heavily involved with The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies which has been running in a couple of countries the last year or two and a couple of the writers who contributed essays to this book... Virginie Sélavy and Marcelle Perks... were there to give a seminar called Virgins and Vampires: Gothic Damsels and Final Girls in the Cinema of Jean Rollin. I figured it was a safe bet to assume they would have a few copies of Lost Girls to sell at this thing so I and a friend booked ourselves a ticket and... well, while the number of the books they sold was finished up well before the end of the entrance queue, I made sure I was one of the first in line and snapped up a copy of this truly excellent publication for the more than fair sum of only 20 English pounds. Furthermore, I was able to get the book signed by both ladies on the night and it would be true to say that I and my friend were very happy that we decided to buy this thing before the start of the lecture and not at the end, when all the copies had been sold.
One of the reasons I was particularly interested in having a book on Jean Rollin is because there just is not much written about him in English. I have both the other books I know of specifically about Rollin in my native tongue... Psychedelic Sex Vampires by Jack Hunter (a somewhat slight tone in terms of textual content, from what I remember) and the excellent Fascination: The Celluloid Dreams of Jean Rollin by David Hinds (which I reviewed here). I’d like to be able to say that either Hinds book or this one is the superior volume but, truth be told, they are both very different kinds of books on Rollin and I think they are both worth reading.
One of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin big marketing points was that it’s a collection of essays on Rollin which is from purely female contributors. Now, being a man, I can’t really see why that was flagged as a selling point... after all, I’m sure there must be some ‘men only’ collected tomes on a whole variety of subjects out there somewhere too and I don’t see what the sex of the writers has to do with anything but, in her afterword to the book, Kier-La Janisse explains exactly why she felt this was a good idea and, yeah, I can... kinda... see where she’s coming from.
The first thing you will notice about the book itself is that it’s absolutely beautifully designed and illustrated. The illustrations are by Jessica Seamans and the layouts are by Ms. Janisse herself. Both aspects are stunning and, with my pernickety designer head on, I only noticed one minor typographical error, where the text flow seems to have gone wrong around a picture, so I was pretty pleased. Each chapter has its own black and white header illustration around the number and the other thing which fans of Rollin will notice is that it has a vast amount of photographic stills accompanying the movies talked about in these pages. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many photos from Rollin productions all in one place before... or as beautifully reproduced as those in here are and it’s another reason why this book should be on the shelf of any lover of this director’s work.
The book starts off with a chapter entitled Le Viol du Vampire and the Last Surrealist Riot and it’s written, in a very informative manner, by Gianna D'Emilio. This talks about the production and reception of Rollin’s first feature film Le Viol Du Vampire and the way it was put together as two parts of a serial masquerading as a feature. And you get loads of little anecdotes here about this one... some of them the usual suspects but mixed in with a fair few stories which I wasn’t aware of. Stuff like the awful hotel putting up the cast and crew running out of toilet paper so, after eight days, the various copies of the script were either lost in the woods or used as a replacement for the absent bathroom equipment. The writer duly notes the stylistic influences from surrealism via the likes of Cocteau and Bunuel and mentions that one of the reasons for the riots and death threats at the screenings may have been because of the specific artistic sensibility of this piece as opposed to other vampire films popular at the time (such as Hammer’s contemporaneous release, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave). She also mentions that this film has the only existing footage of the old Grand Guignol Theatre before it was refurbished (for more info on the Grand Guignol, click here).
Actually, the difference between Rollin’s work in the vampire genre compared to many film makers over the decades is something that a lot of the contributors here choose to pick up on. For instance, in Heather Drain’s chapter Disgracing The Family Name: Vampirism and Societal Rebellion in Le Frisson Des Vampires (aka Shiver Of The Vampires) she points out the way the director used vampires to explore them as a family unit while in editor Samm Deighan’s chapter The Thing In The Coffin: Jean Rollin’s Female Vampire as Romantic Liberator, she makes the observation that the vampires in these films are much more likely to be companionable rather than predatory creatures. Deighan further looks at the way females in general are handled in another of her essays, Blood Sisters: Female Intimacy in Jean Rollin’s Contes De Fées and points out the way they are often portrayed in duos or groups and the way they are elevated with a fairytale sensibility which, again, sets them apart from the work of a fair few other directors in these kinds of genres.
Now I’m not going to go through every essay chapter in this book but I will pick out a few more of them here. In all but one specific case I found the writing to be a mixture of optimistic appreciation of the director’s work, written extremely enthusiastically from a place of knowledge and, in almost every case, the writer was able to dispense that knowledge in the most understandable and entertaining way possible. That being said, one of the earlier essays struck me as being the exact opposite of this but... I’m not going to name the writer or the title of the piece because that just wouldn’t be nice and, also, just because I thought it was the worst thing here doesn’t mean everyone else can’t see the worth in it. I may just be incredibly stupid when it comes to this kind of thing but one in particular seemed to be bringing in a lot of esoteric references without really making any point, it seemed to me.
But for me that one essay was really the exception to the rule... which is a pretty good ‘hit rate’ if you think about it. Let me just pick out a few more chapters of interest, though, before I finish this.
The Zombie-Gore-Disaster Film... Jean Rollin Style by Michelle Alexander is a really interesting one as she points out how topical, real life disaster stories of the time would have inspired, or at least informed, the plots to films like The Grapes Of Death (and probably also Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, I would imagine) with their sobering stories of chemical leaks and agriculture gone wrong. She also talks about the possibility of the deaths of some of the Bader-Meinhof Group in prison being an influence on Rollin’s Night Of The Hunted, which I found kinda interesting (I remember next to nothing of Bader-Meinhof being on the news when I was a kid so I need to watch the movie they made about them and get up to speed, I guess).
Alexandra Heller Nicholas’ chapter Les Démoniaques: Politics, Poetry and the Supernatural Rape-Revenge Film makes the curious point that the follow through on the inevitable revenge in such movies is often abandoned by the main protagonists in a Rollin film, as they get distracted or have other priorities coming to the forefront.
Serials in Soulless Cities: Les Trottoirs De Bangkok and Killing Car by Gianna D'Emilio looks more closely at the way Feuillade's serials of the silent era have influenced Rollin, specifically in regard to these two movies. She also looks at the way that Asian stereotypes are somewhat overturned in these, as opposed to one of Rollin's chiefly named influences, The Mask Of Fu Manchu. Meanwhile, one of Samm Deighan’s chapters, Phantasmes: Jean Rollin's Hardcore Reveries and Work For Hire, gives more of an overview, a welcome one, of some of his lesser seen work (in this country) and is good for trying to work out which, if any, of these specific movies from the director’s portfolio are worth tracking down.
My favourite chapter, however, has to be Virginie Sélavy’s wonderful Castles of Subversion Continues: From the Roman Noir and Surrealism, which looks at Rollin’s use of castles in his movies. For instance, out of his 20 main features (as in his personal projects, the one the majority of his fan base will be more familiar with), 12 of them feature castles of some description. She makes the point that they appear as ancient artefacts in the modern world where they shouldn’t necessarily be or fit in, creating an artificial environment and looking at the way Rollin perhaps uses the architectural atmosphere as a kind of mental space for his characters. She picks up that castles, the famous Rollin beach and cemeteries are anchor points signalling man’s futile battle against time and decay as these places often display physical manifestations of being run down or, quite literally, covered in floral history (so to speak).
As I said, I’m not going to go through the contents of every chapter of this for the purposes of this makeshift review but hopefully you’ll see that this is a thorough and very useful, not to mention spectacular, book to have on your movie bookshelf. The afterword chapter, by Kier La Janisse herself, is similarly wondrous in that she uses her own recollections of Rollin from his visit to her Cinemeurte Festival and beyond, along with various other somewhat authoritative voices on the director in terms of their initial experiences of his work (such as Tim Lucas, who wrote one of the greatest movie books ever with his monolithic study of Mario Bava, All The Colours Of The Dark), to pay a loving tribute to the man and his work to round things off.
And that’s about all I can say about this one now unless I want to be writing for a good many more hours than there are left in the day. Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin is truly one of the most interesting collections of essays looking at a particularly neglected (in English language print) body of work from one of the great, somewhat surrealistic French directors of the last 50 or so years. Definitely worth the price of purchase and, I have to say, I am so glad I went to that seminar last year to be able to get myself a copy (yeah, the seminar was pretty cool too, by the way).
The spectacular optical website is here and the Miskatonic website is here. Go explore.