Sunday 1 December 2019

Le Viol Du Vampire (aka The Rape Of The Vampire)

Lady And The Vamp

Le Viol Du Vampire
(aka The Rape Of The Vampire)
France 1968 Directed by Jean Rollin
Redemption Blu Ray Zone A

There were already riots happening in Paris when Le Viol Du Vampire, Jean Rollin’s first feature length film, was released in pretty much the only cinema left showing anything in town. Like the critical reception of Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andelou, the film was met with taunts, jeers, death threats and a generally negative and incredibly violent reaction from the public. Rollin says that there was a riot in one of the screenings but whether this was due to the overall atmosphere in France at the time or because of the perceived incomprehensibility of this film is anyone’s guess. I suspect it’s a combination of the two, to be honest.

The film is the one I come back to the most, every decade or so, out of this amazing director’s oeuvre of astonishing, vampiric motion picture art and I suspect the audiences at the time, who were presumably being fed on an diet of imported British Hammer Horror films and their nearest equivalent, were just not ready for something as uncompromisingly surreal (to an extent) and, frankly, as badly acted as what they were shown.

It’s funny, no matter how many times I’ve watched this over the years on varying different prints on various different ‘this is the best one yet’ transfers of those prints, I’ve always thought the film as completely incomprehensible. However, I can’t think why now because, when I rewatched this recently for this review, the whole thing really made a lot of sense to me, to be honest.

The film is split into two parts comprising a short film about two guys and a girl wanting to cure four local women of the delusion that they are centuries old vampires. However, Rollin realised that this could be expanded into a feature and so he use the idea of a second chapter, like the various serials he adored, to shoot a another part with more or less the same cast later. When everyone in is dead in that first part, the second chapter (where most of these characters return from their dead status), which is much longer, picks up the story and introduces the striking features of Jacqueline Sieger as The Vampire Queen who is experimenting on bringing dead people back to life but, unbeknownst to her, her human surgeon who wants to marry one of her underlings is working on his own cure for vampirism.

The film is, I think, the only one of Rollin’s features (at least that I’ve seen) which was shot in black and white. He usually has some interesting colours in his movies but even in this, you can see how his eye for 'the perfect shot' is never lacking. This is a beautiful looking film full of sublime and surreal imagery (if not as surreal in plotting, as is often vocalised). Rollin employed no actual actors in this and, like it does in a lot of his other films... this really shows. Honestly, the acting in this is worse than you can possibly imagine but, the thing about Rollin is, it’s about the beauty of the imagery and the way those actors interact with each other and their environment that’s the reason for watching these. They really are like exquisitely composed paintings brought to life... the acting may be dire but, like some of the films of Dario Argento, it really can’t ruin the overall artistry on display here. This is one of my favourite Rollin films and for good reason.

Right from the start we encounter the rich and provocative imagery that Rollin is known for. A woman in a diaphanous white dress is standing against a tree while a bat sucks the blood from the top of her bosom. And Rollin starts as he means to go on with various interesting compositions showing, in this case, a heck of a lot of vertical shapes splitting off sections. So frames will be filled with an abundance of graveyard crosses, candlesticks and a load of skittles on the grass. Even the locations he films are full of uprights, like the groynes of the beach which was to feature in many of his future movies... or the poles and trees along the road which threaten to split up the perspective of the shot as cars and people roam from one rectangular section to another.

And, of course there’s the vampire queen herself and that wonderful shot of her licking the blood off the big curved knife she has just used on someone, like a cat with cream. For some reason, the ladies in these pictures never seem to wear many clothes and in this one, there’s always a breast or two popping loose from the thinly fastened or draped veils they wear. It seems impractical some of the time, such as when the vampire queen rides around the countryside with her breasts on show from the back of an open top car but it looks fantastic and so I think it’s fair to say that Rollin is always more than happy to abandon the practical elements of a tale in favour of the visual poetry of a shot.

Another thing he does... and I’ve seen this done in a few Japanese things too over the years, as a way of highlighting an important emotional beat of a story, is this. He will cut to the same kind of action in a different location or situation, sometimes three or four at once, to give weight to their place in the scheme of things. So when a vampire girl knocks over a skittle on some grass in long shot, we cut to a close up of the skittle being knocked over on the beach. Or when a vampire girl is flogged and subjected to sunlight (which seems to not make a jot of a difference to some of the vampires in the film), we see her undergoing things simultaneously as if they are happening all at once, which, to be fair given the timescale being explored, they probably are. These aren’t montages to shorthand a specific passing time shift like you see in most American movies... these are shifting in space and highlighting a less practical intertextuality, where moments of cinematic time are given more weight through the exploration of a different way of looking at things simultaneous to actual events. I’ve seen this happen in a few anime or anime inspired films over the last couple of decades.

One thing that I only twigged this time around, though, is that one of the actors in the first section... and I’ve no idea which as he’s just listed as one of the villagers... is played by Philippe Druillet. Druillet, of course, is a key French comic book and graphic novel artist and writer (and inker and colourer) whose work I used to occasionally catch in the Heavy Metal comic magazine in the late 1970s and early 1980s (which was the American edition of Métal Hurlant). So that’s new to me and I wonder, since Rollin would often take to writing novels and comic books when he couldn’t get his films produced, if they were good friends and colleagues in those kinds of professions too.

Not much else to say on this one for me, I think. Le Viol Du Vampire is an absolutely brilliant movie and it just gets better and, sadly, more comprehensible the more I watch it. The sometimes cool and sometimes grating jazz atonalism aesthetic of the soundtrack by  Yvon Géraud and François Tusques sometimes helps and sometimes almost hinders the atmosphere that Rollin is trying for but, like the acting, it doesn’t really manage to sabotage the general aesthetic too much. Despite this film not being in colour, this movie is an excellent jumping on point for the cinema of Jean Rollin as it demonstrates quite clearly the way he manages to mix some horrendously awful, performances from the actors with some truly breathtaking, gorgeously surreal and sometimes erotic imagery on screen. About the only key thing missing in this one is his obsession with having twin vampire girls as the main protagonists but... that would come fairly soon. If you’re looking for a typical Rollin film to see, if you are able to juggle the negative and tremendously positive factors of his creations, then this is the one to go for. I must return to it quicker next time.

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