Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, Essays, Film Reviews

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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