Le Frisson des Vampires (1971)

Le Frisson des Vampires (1971) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 10/16/2017

The Shiver of the Vampires is perhaps the most completely realized vision of Jean Rollin. In my opinion, that is.

Of his early films, Le viol du vampire (1968), La vampire nue (1970),  Requiem pour un vampire (1971) (all vampires, all the time), it’s as lush a production as he ever seemed to land, and also features another gorgeous Art Deco throwback movie poster, even nicer than La vampire nue.

On the surface, what’s really new? Naked vampires with sapphic leanings, elegant ruins inhabited, death and deathlessness, longing and desire. But at the same time it does differ. The soundtrack by Groupe Acanthus is certainly a-typical and kind of groovy. But that’s not it.

Rollin employs Bava-esque colored lighting , evoking a cheap but effective surrealism. The appearances of Isolde (Dominique), the vampire queen, first from a clock, then exploding from wall hangings, and (less effectively) dropping into a fireplace call to mind Jean Cocteau and the gorgeous simple effects in La Belle et la Bête (1946).

The story is the subversion of the heterosexual , or traditional married relationship. A freshly married man and wife arrive at the wife’s cousin’s castle only to find them dead. Well, dead and undead. Two mysterious nubile servants quietly run the show. But the wife is seduced away from her virginity as well as her husband’s grasp.

Rollin’s depictions of lesbian relationships is less purely exploitative and scopophilic. The women of his films escape their patriarchal worlds and find freedom and beauty in love between themselves. He’s nowhere as clear in his attitude toward male homosexuality, but maybe he’s frowns on all masculinity.

Ultimately, the heroes of the story are “the Renfields”, the unnamed lesbian servants, who overthrow not only the patriarchy at the end but overthrow the entire bourgeoisie.

I’ve watched Rollin’s vampire quartet over a four year span, in no particular order, so I would like to re-watch as a group sometime to better have a collective impression of the ideas and attitudes.

I do think this the best of the four, though I like them all.

 

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969)

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) movie poster

director Robert Hossein
viewed: 07/29/2017

Spaghetti Westerns are often cynical and sometimes bleak. Some through social criticism and political commentary, some in their reenactments of history. Some just in the brutal worlds the depict.

The taciturn, often nameless, gunslinger anti-hero is typically unknowable, a cipher to the outside world, whose actions though brutal often carry the weight of justice or morality, whichever level of those exist in each film.

Robert Hossein stars in his own take on the genre, Cemetery Without Crosses, an intentional homage to the great Sergio Leone. But Hossein’s gunslinger is cut from a different cloth. His face isn’t the least bit inscrutable, but rather pained and melancholic. He is brought into action not for money or justice or morals, but for the old love of a woman seeking revenge. His actions and their results are decidedly amoral, settling a feud with deceit, cruelty and more and more bullets.

Cemetery Without Crosses is an amazing film, possibly my favorite Spaghetti Western I’ve seen. It’s brutal and perhaps in many ways quite French for an Italian Western. It’s the fatalism of Hossein’s Manuel, acting not out of rightness or justice, but an old alliance to love, knowing the wrongness. It’s spelled out on his face.

The film has a great visual aesthetic. The ghost town in which Manuel lives is perfect and metaphorical. The shots that directly call out Leone are sweet. And the soundtrack, composed by Hossein’s father is classic, as is the theme song crooned by Scott Walker.

One of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Lips of Blood (1975)

Lips of Blood (1975) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 07/14/2017

Lips of Blood is one of the most dreamlike of Jean Rollin’s surrealistic horror films. It also seems like one of the better-funded of productions, though from what I’ve read, it suffered from some production shortcomings that kept it from being a fully-realized vision.

Rollin’s films all have that feel to me; compromises everywhere, but dreams realized and visions captured nonetheless. The locations are gorgeous, including the “aquarium at the Trocadero, the ruins at Chateau Gaillard, and that seemingly ever-present beach at Dieppe with its rotting pilings, an image of longing and loss. Lips of Blood feels somehow more personal as well, and apparently Rollin based the character of Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) on himself.

Frédéric is triggered by a photo of a ruined castle and a memory, much like a dream, invades his mind: as a child, going there and falling in love with a beautiful, short-haired girl (Annie Belle, last seen by me in Rollin’s Bacchanales Sexuelles (1974). The rest of his existence begins to fall away as he hunts for the castle and the girl, and meanwhile frees some other sexy, near-nekkid vampires.

Rollin was indeed a romantic.

Port of Shadows (1938)

Port of Shadows (1938) movie poster

director Marcel Carné
viewed: 06/24/2017

Port of Shadows may be the Frenchest French film ever made. Though I suppose that depends on your perception of France and the French. Luc Sante wrote that it “possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema,” and that it is an exemplar of “poetic realism“.

Jean Gabin stumbles into La Havre, which is drenched in fog, from one near fist fight to another, smoking and brooding about life. And then Michèle Morgan, just a kid really at 17, and yet more a woman than many twice her age. Morgan, like Gabin, like most any frame of Port of Shadows is a luminous cinematic image, eternal.

This also falls into the “proto-noir” categorization, noir before noir.

Like a transmission in a dream.

Bacchanales sexuelles (1974)

Bacchanales sexuelles (1974) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 05/17/2017

I don’t know if Jean Rollin’s Bacchanales sexuelles was ever a hardcore porn film or what this version was softcore but in spades. I’ve read that Rollin did make some hardcore porn films as well. I don’t know if those were as unusual and fit as well into his auteur motifs as this.

Because Bacchanales sexuelles is a comedy (of sorts) and a series of sex scenes connected together by a running narrative about a sex cult who kidnaps and blackmails. And it’s not that there is so much to this sex cult but it rings of other weird cults that Rollin has depicted in films like The Nude Vampire (1970) and others.

The level of tedium isn’t as profound as in Schoolgirl Hitchhikers (1973), another movie that was to my understanding also a bit of a porn film stripped back to a “regular” movie.

I would say that this would only be for Rollin completist or someone who yearns for the days of Skinamax.

In My Skin (2002)

In My Skin (2002) movie poster

director  Marina de Van
viewed: 04/09/2017

I had queued up Marina de Van’s In My Skin back when I started revisiting the “New French Extremism” of the early Aughts. It’s through randomization that it came to me recently.

Marina de Van stars as Esther, an up and coming something or other in an office, who randomly injures her leg and quickly becomes obsessed with her wound and wounding herself more and more. It seems apt that it’s Marina de Van herself doing all this self-mortification, because from that perspective, it’s a pretty gnarly thing. The FX are convincing and gruesome and her body is her canvass.

But there is also something missing here, and I want to say it’s the psychology of the character. The descent into madness is made as easily as stepping in dog poo on the street. It doesn’t feel coherent exactly.

But carve away as she does, the viscera is visceral, and even without the psychological logic or connection, her knifework is keen. While it doesn’t fully achieve its goals, it has some things for which to recommend it as well.

Raw (2016)

Raw (2016) movie poster

director Julia Ducournau
viewed: 04/02/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Be a little wary of dating a French or Belgian veterinary student who eschews meat. At least that is what Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw has taught me. If this is what “coming of age” looks like, it’s better to hide under the bedsheets.

Seriously, though, Raw is a riveting film, showing great promise from Ducournau. It’s body horror, cannibalism, sexual awakening.

Garance Marillier is a fresh-faced waif of a girl, transformed by her first year at college. It turns out it’s only partly the hazing rituals, in that they unlock a part of Marillier that she did not know was there.

I’d sure I’m one of a very few dad’s who took his teenagers to see this one. It’s not as gruesome as some have suggested, but it’s powerfully conceived and executed. I look forward to Ducournau’s further work.

Shoah (1985)

Shoah (1985) movie poster

director Claude Lanzmann
viewed: 03/18/2017-03/25/2017

In the latter 20th century, if there was one thing that seemed rather universally regarded was that World War II was fought against an enemy that was incredibly, absolutely and terribly bad. Nazi Germany offered a clarity of an evil that one and all could recognize as “evil”, that the war was fought against an enemy as black-and-white as morality could achieve. That later wars were increasingly moral quagmires that could not by any means be reduced to good versus evil, right and wrong, WWII and Nazi Germany was something certain and awful, horrendous nearly beyond comprehension.

The 21st century and in particular the most recent years has brought a shocking open rise in stark racism and even a resurgence in Nazism. Certainly factions persisted that supported white supremacy and other repugnant beliefs but they remained submerged or simply existed as a small fringe of people. With the rise of candidate Trump, the racists have been emboldened and are making themselves known and I can’t help but to be continually shocked by this.

I try not to be reductive in my thinking, and I know that even in Nazi Germany there were more complex stories played out behind the monstrosity of the Third Reich. But Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, Reinhard Heydrich, and the mind trust behind “The Final Solution” still fall into the most abject and clear demarcation of inhumanity as known in history.

It is from this place of thinking that I decided to watch Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 document, Shoah.

This is, in essence, why Shoah was made. Testament, testimony, perhaps most embodied in Filip Müller, who survived Auschwitz in part to tell of those who perished there. The idea of remembrance and commitment to never allowing something of this nature to happen ever again, nor to forget those that died.

There is so much in the film’s nearly 10 hours, so much to process.

It’s interesting that it’s 30-40 years post-war that Lanzmann catches these people. And it’s good that he did to record their stories and testimonies because most, if not all of them are now dead. As WWII recedes further and further into the past, like any event, those who actually lived through it, bore witness to these things, will eventually pass on as well and the opportunity for recording oral history will be gone.

I was most struck by two things in particular. One, the filming of the sites of the death camps in their then present day situation. Such contrast to the events that happened in those places, now monuments or ruins in the sedate Polish countryside. Haunting when infused with the telling of the mass murders that took place there.

And secondly, the overwhelming fact of the Final Solution itself. This idea to exterminate an entire race of people (and others also considered undesirable) itself is almost mechanical in its conception. That industrialized process was employed to eradicate human beings follows almost logically. And in reality was frighteningly efficient. To consider the thinking that led to all this is to try to consider and understand a stark form of madness.

Whatever comes of our present time, it is of value to arm oneself with knowledge and information, facts. Our remembrance is continued remembrance to deny the deniers, those that look to obfuscate truth and spread lies as facts. To remember to what heinous and horrific degree the logic of hate and xenophobia can become. That genocide is real.

Long Way North (2015)

Long Way North (2015) movie poster

director Rémi Chayé
viewed: 02/18/2017

The style of this French-Danish animated feature reminded me aesthetically of Tomm Moore’s films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and it’s not so surprising. First time head director Rémi Chayé assistant directed the 2009 film.

Sasha is the daughter or a Russian aristocrat who leaves everything behind in a quest to find her grandfather or his missing ice-breaking ship, both of whom disappeared as he searched for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. He’s a sort of Russian version of a Ernest Shackleton but more shaggy and fun.

It’s a nice film, with a strong female hero. It’s light but also mostly serious, with a lot less humor than your average children’s animated fare. Which isn’t really the problem.

The problem is more in the pacing and drama. Some things fly by, others happen suddenly without much impact. The polar bear scene near the end really lacked something. It’s hard to describe exactly what is off here, but both me and my daughter noticed it.

Still, enjoyable, if by no means a classic.

Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond (1985) movie poster

director  Agnès Varda
viewed: 02/08/2017

Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Mona Bergeron, the titular “vagabond” of Agnès Varda’s haunting 1985 film. She’s not as mopish and repetitive as Herman Melville’s Bartleby, but she’s of a similar ilk, a modern individual disconnecting with society. She’s more of a rebel, too, but what cause she rebels against is never fully known.

I had forgotten that Mona is dead from the get-go. The first we see of her is her stiffened corpse in a rural ditch. She is reconstructed through the reminisces of those who met or simply saw her, glimpses imbued with each individual’s own world view. However, Varda shows us Mona beyond the perspectives of the pseudo-interviewees. We see her in glimpses presumably more accurate.

Maybe the Bartleby comparison is inherently flawed, because Mona is not simply withdrawn, in fact, she rouses to moments of great camaraderie, in particular with the old woman with whom she gets tipsy or the Tunisian farm worker with who betrays her friendship and really seems to hurt her.

More than anything, Mona is a woman, an individual, who has cut ties with the regular world and has taken to camping on her own in the wine region. She is wandering to find a place outside of the social norms. But she is also uncertain of what she wants and spurns a gift of land from a hippie farmer because she doesn’t really want to farm the land.

It’s ultimately tragic, and bizarre,as she stumbles into a pagan wine event dousing her in the dregs by costumed figures. She is also raped by a stranger just before her total dissolution.

Varda’s original French title Sans toit ni loi, which translates roughly as “With neither roof nor law” suggests Mona’s rebellion moreso than Vagabond. She’s a tragic figure, not entirely kind or appreciative, whose rejection of the world, a feminist rebellion, leaves her frozen to death in a ditch. She’s ultimately unknowable, but haunting and real.