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Jean Rollin

Videodrone: ‘Holy Motors,’ ‘The Loneliest Planet,’ Mizoguchi, and Nazi zombies

Holy Motors (Vivendi) is a film that almost defies description.

From its enigmatic opening scenes, which sends the viewers into a mysterious voyage a la Alice through the looking glass that ends up in a movie theater, Holy Motors is a celebration of the magic, imagination, and primal power of the movies.

Director Leos Carax celebrates his love (as well as his criticisms) of cinema in the modern world through an imagined culture of interactive theater that recreates moviemaking as private performance art pieces executed by freelance performers / directors for audiences unknown. Denis Lavant, the ugly/beautiful primal force of Les amants du Pont-Neuf and Beau Travail, is the committed actor, delivered from set to set in a long white limousine dressing room, the arts equivalent to the traveling office of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (I think there is a great double feature to be found here). He transforms from businessman to gnarled old beggar woman to street thug killer to depraved leprechaun troll and beyond, taking on a complete new persona with each costume change.

Behind these unrestrained journeys into all manner of mini-movies is an anxiety over the future of filmmaking and a fear of exhaustion (physical and creative) by the filmmakers, but the determination to keep creating these dreams and the sheer physical commitment to each performance is its own answer. Yet beyond that is the exhilaration of Carax’s flights of fantasy, from the visceral beauty of a motion-capture martial arts dance and gymnastic ballet of sexual congress to passionately overwrought melodramas that could have come out of the 1940s (Hollywood or France, take your pick) to hard-edged crime thrillers with wicked twists that call on us to provide our own backstory. There’s comedy, music, drama, thrills, tributes to the movies, legendary French actress Edith Scob, American beauty Eva Mendes, and Australian pop star Kylie Minogue, but mostly there is wonder and invention and the sheer thrill of cinematic creation. In the words of Lavant’s exhausted creator, it’s all about the beauty of the act, and these acts are nothing if not beautiful.

Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles (and brief sequences in English language). The Blu-ray also features the 47-minute documentary “Drive-In” with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage (in French with English subtitles) and an interview with Kylie Minogue (in English).  Also available On Demand, on digital download, and VOD.

The Loneliest Planet (MPI), an American independent production shot overseas, stars Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal as a couple backpacking through the back country of Georgia in Eastern Europe, always making an effort to take the road less traveled. This road in this meandering, low-key film leads to an unexpected confrontation, and a startling reaction, that changes things irrevocably between them. Don’t fret if you don’t get any subtitles. We are as much in the dark as to what the locals are saying between themselves as our traveling couple. DVD, with a featurette and stills.

Sansho the Bailiff (Criterion), Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterful 1954 film, follows the ordeals of the wife and children of a provincial governor after they are sold into slavery by a vindictive feudal lord. Mizoguchi is the poet laureate of Japanese cinema, gracefully exploring the battered but resilient souls in the cruel worlds of Japan’s feudal past and present. His worlds are hard and unforgiving, the societies brutal, and within them he creates characters of tremendous grace. This is one of his greatest films, and it won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, his third win in three years.

Sansho is not the hero of Sansho the Bailiff, he’s a pitiless slave owner who metes out swift, unequivocal punishment to all slaves captured in escape attempts. The brother, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) hardens over time, becoming tough and unfeeling as he obeys the hard commands of Sansho, but sister Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) remains kind and generous and sacrifices her freedom to save Zushio, which rekindles his knotty heart and soul and resolve. Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays the mother separated from her children and degraded by a life of prostitution. Mizoguchi was famed for his portraits of women. It’s not just about finding the saints among the sinners, but the rich lives of these concubines and wives and actresses and prostitutes, who are supposed to find their identity in the men of their lives and wind up forging their own rich interior lives, even as they wind up discarded by their own society.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Nude Vampire’

There was no other director like Jean Rollin, the French horror fantasist who died in 2010 and left behind a strange and wonderful (and sometimes horrible) legacy in his distinctive films. His reputation never really extended beyond cult circles but the weird sensibility and distinctive style and imagery of his sex-and-horror exploitation films, and his ability to create unsettling atmosphere out of simple locations and minimalist sets, made him a legend among fans of the unusual, the offbeat, and films of the fantastic.

Apart from bootlegs and a few edited English-dubbed American versions of his films, most of Rollin’s films were initially released on home video in the U.S. during the previous decade by Redemption, a British company that first licensed their films to Image and then released them under their own American label. Now they’ve entered into a new partnership with Kino Lorber to release their entire library on Blu-ray as well as DVD in newly-remastered editions, beginning with five films from Jean Rollin.

The Nude Vampire (1970), Rollin’s second feature and the earliest of his films in this first wave of releases, is a strange work of conspiracy, family rebellion, and innocence imprisoned, both a vampire film and a strange science fiction fantasy of shadowy old men performing secret experiments. Pierre (Olivier Martin, aka Olivier Rollin), our well-heeled hero, is drawn into the conspiracy when he’s entranced by a young woman (Caroline Cartier) wandering the streets, naked under a sheer gown and shadowed by men in black tights and animal masks, a scene that looks like some kind of wild performance art. When he’s barred from following her to a villa, where some kind of weird private party / cult ceremony is underway, he becomes obsessed with learning the secret of the villa and the woman. Both mysteries lead to his father (Maurice Lemaître), a kinky old industrialist with two ripe young servants in uniforms right out of Barbarella, and his cabal, who believe that this delirious young woman is a vampire and holds the secret of immortality.

It’s Rollin’s first color film and his debut collaboration with cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon, who first creates that distinctive look of Rollin’s nocturnal shoots here. He floods the performers and with plenty of illumination even in the dead of night, lighting the center of the frame while the light feathers out until it fades to midnight black at the edges. The world disappears outside of his frame and adds mystery to the action, as if the fall of night takes the story out of time and makes all things possible. Rollin’s love of twins and matched pairs is also first seen here, as is his penchant for romantic heroes drawn to mysterious women and supernatural places. He dresses the entire affair up in formal evening clothes for the guests and skimpy costumes for the twin servants (one scene has them in skirts with fringe like banana peels, which the lascivious old man peels off one by one).

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DVD/Blu-ray: Le Cinema Fantastique de Jean Rollin

There was no director like Jean Rollin, the French horror fantasist who died in 2010 and left behind a strange and wonderful (and sometimes horrible) legacy in his distinctive films. His reputation never really extended beyond cult circles but the weird sensibility and distinctive style and imagery of his sex-and-horror exploitation films, and his ability to create unsettling atmosphere out of simple locations and minimalist sets, made him a legend in some circles.

His films are categorized as “horror” by genre and they are obsessed with vampires and ghosts and spirits from past eras, but they really belong to a genre all their own. Imagine the poetry of Jean Cocteau meeting the emotionless performances of Robert Bresson in erotic fantasies and surreal dreams of sex and blood, shot on starvation budgets and rushed shooting schedules with porn stars taking the leads.

These weird fantasies plunge viewers into surreal worlds out of time and place where figures (usually nude women) wander deserted landscapes and abandoned villas, cemeteries, and ruins, as if hypnotized by the possibilities of magic beneath these rarified locations. There’s a bizarrely mundane strangeness to his films, a matter-of-fact directness coupled with deadened, flat performances, austere sets and locations, and an unadorned camera style. Yet Rollin has an eye for modestly magnificent locations (castles, courtyards, cemeteries, cobblestone streets) that become ominous when deserted and lit with a practical minimalism at night.

Poor bootleg copies and inferior, heavily edited American versions aside, most Americans had their first opportunity to discover his films when the first DVD editions (resurrected and produced by the British home video company Redemption and licensed to American companies) poured out in the early 2000s, part of the gush of cult cinema that suddenly appeared in the early days of the format.

What a discovery! These films were unbelievable: B-movie exploitations by an avant-garde eroticist, the filmmaking at once slapdash and intense, the imagery screwy and haunting, the narratives dreamy, inexplicable, and usually incoherent, yet also hypnotic and mesmerizing. Some of his filmmaking was crude (a result of budget or time, or simply his disinterest in getting a contractual sex scene out of the way so he could choreograph one of his set pieces) but at his best, he was the erotic poet of le cinema fantastique.

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Jean Rollin: Eros, Exploitation and Le Cinema Fantastique

There was no director like Jean Rollin, the French horror fantasist who died in the waning days of 2010 at the age of 72 and left behind a strange and wonderful (and sometimes horrible) legacy in his distinctive films. His reputation never really extended beyond cult circles but the weird sensibility and distinctive style and imagery of his sex-and-horror exploitation films, and his ability to create unsettling atmosphere out of simple locations and minimalist sets, made him a legend in some circles. (For a sampling of tributes to Rollin, visit the website Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience.)

Marie Pierre Castel and Mireille D'Argent in "Requiem for a Vampire"

Rollin’s films belong to a genre all their own, horror fantasies the plunge viewers into wild fantasy worlds out of time and place where figures (usually nude women) wander a deserted landscape. Imagine the poetry of Jean Cocteau meeting the emotionless performances of Robert Bresson in erotic fantasies and surreal dreams of sex and blood, shot on starvation budgets and rushed shooting schedules with porn stars taking the leads. There’s a bizarrely mundane strangeness to his films, a matter-of-fact directness coupled with deadened, flat performances, austere sets and locations and an unadorned camera style. He has an eye for modestly magnificent locations (castles, courtyards, towns of stone and brick at night) that become ominous when deserted and lit with a practical minimalism. In most nocturnal shoots, he floods the performers with a bright light in the center, giving them plenty of illumination even in the dead of night while the light feathers out until it fades to midnight black at the edges. The world disappears outside of his frame.

I was captivated by Rollin when the very first American DVD releases from Image (licensed from the British label Redemption) poured out on DVD in the early 2000s, part of the gush of cult cinema that suddenly appeared in the early days of the format. These films were unbelievable: B-movie exploitations by an avant-garde eroticist, the filmmaking at once slapdash and intense, the imagery screwy and haunting, the narratives dreamy, inexplicable, at times incoherent yet often hypnotic and mesmerizing. Some of his filmmaking was crude (perhaps the result of budget or time, or simply his disinterest in getting a contractual sex scene out of the way so he could choreograph one of his set pieces) but at his best, he was the erotic poet of le cinema fantastique.

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