Jean Rollin, who was born in 1938 and died two years ago, is French cinema’s guilty secret.
Over the course of his quixotic 51-year career, Rollin made all kinds of controversy-stirring pictures – from seedy crime thrillers to outright sexploitation flicks. But his hallowed reputation among cult film fans rests largely on his horror flicks, particularly his erotically charged vampire outings. For Rollin, vampires are seldom the sallow-faced patriarchs of Hammer cliché; they tend instead to be lithe and ethereal young women with a penchant for knife-play and sapphic entanglements. But films like Les paumées du petit matin [aka The Escapees] and Fascination aren’t romps: they’re far too slow, or too meditative if we’re being kind, to satisfy seekers of cheap and easy thrills. It’s not uncommon for the first 40 minutes of a Rollin film to be entirely free of dialogue, never mind incident – he must be most among the most fast-forwarded directors in VHS history.
Rollin must be most among the most fast-forwarded directors in VHS history.
So what is it that makes Rollin’s films so compelling? Well, once you adjust to the near-static pacing, it’s possible to appreciate what a poet of the cinema, albeit an erratic one, the Frenchman is. You don’t watch these movies for their storylines, which are virtually non-existent anyway; you watch them for their their mood, their cumulative, hypnotic power. Music plays a hugely important role in creating and sustaining this power, and so it’s gratifying to find that two of Rollin’s most memorable scores, composed by Philippe D’aram and Pierre Raph, have been given a new lease of life on vinyl.
Finders Keepers, Andy Votel’s tireless archaeological dig of a record label, is behind the gorgeous 10″ pressings of D’aram’s Fascination and Raph’s Requiem por un Vampire, both of which come in limited edition die-cut sleeves with liner notes by Daniel Bird. Musically, the two are very different: D’aram’s work combines romantic string and piano overtures, synthetic choral arrangements, bowed saws and heavy electronic drones with effortless sophistication, while Raph favours a more chaotic but no less effective barrage of organ and percussion.
FACT’s Kiran Sande spoke to Andy Votel to find out more about these soundtracks and the films they were recorded for, and asks why Rollin has continued to languish in semi-obscurity while other proponents of “unashamedly sophisticated trash” have come to be accepted by the art-house establishment.
“Like all my favourite books, records and artists, Rollin’s films need dissecting.”
How did you first encounter the work of Jean Rollin?
“I first saw Renan Pollès’ stills from Rollin’s Requiem For A Vampire on the first page of the Hamlyn book Vampire Cinema when I was a kid. Vampires scared me enough as it was, but the concept of a female vampire, especially a pretty one, and one who was dressed in fairly normal clothes and potentially looked like any of my friends’ older sisters, just totally confused me, and the foreign titles didn’t mean anything to me so I just closed the book and spent a few years with the covers over my head.
“A few years later I started seeing similar images on the front of Video Watchdog and in mags like Cinefanatastique in the Corn Exchange and on Back Piccadilly and Shude Hill in Manchester. Then came Cathal Tohill and Peter Tombs’ amazing Immoral Tales book, and Redemption Video’s release of clean, sub-titled prints of the films. It’s safe to say I’ve been fascinated by Rollin for most of my life for various reasons: as a teenager the reasons were pretty obvious, but the soundtracks and the general Frenchness has separated them from most of the Horrortica genre that I now disassociate Rollins films from. Like all my favourite books, records and artists, Rollin’s films need dissecting, you take what you personally need and sympathise with and tolerate certain other elements to understand the genius. It’s like peeling an apple.”
Why do you think Rollin has never – yet – become accepted by the “establishment” in the same way as, say, Argento?
“The ‘establishment’ changes its mind every week. I think the groups you’re referring to are constantly chasing their tails trying to stamp authority on 100 years of cinema, which is impossible – it takes time. But that problem is quite specific to the UK, and what the impetuous British media deem as art-house and what they don’t. There is no question that 15 years ago [Argento’s] Deep Red was still regarded as trash on account of its subject matter, but now, due to the set design, the music, an understanding of its underlying credentials and Argento’s longevity, it’s recognised as the artistic triumph it always has been.
“With horror, the natural cooling-off period trivialises the un-PC elements and in turn a few picture-house snobs retire and things get re-evaluated.”
“There’s no mystery to it: with horror, the natural cooling-off period trivialises the un-PC elements and in turn a few picture-house snobs retire and things get re-evaluated. There have been a lot of badly dubbed films in dodgy VHS boxes that were original condemned to adult cinema clubs or problematic teenagers’ bedrooms, and ten years later you present the same film to an arty cinema – with subtitles, on a nice DVD with a press release – to an arty cinema, and they contradict themselves.
“Zulawski’s Possession is another good example, an amazing and very intellectual piece of film, condemned to the Video Nasty list and crippled by its association – banned on account of some idiotic censors’ uneducated whims. Given that Zulawski was a bastion of the Polish New Wave wouldn’t you think he’d had enough of cencorship? Whimsical is the best way to describe the UK’s art-house establishment; it’s the discerning and open-minded people scouring boot sales, record shops and bookshops that understand these films better than anyone.”
So Rollin’s work is very much ripe for re-assessment?
“If there’s one single director whose films are due for artistic reevaluation, it’s Jean Rollin. His credentials are impeccable and encompass everything that makes good modern cinema achievable today. I feel that Rollin took blows and had to compromise his public integrity on our behalf, just to stay afloat. His links with Lettrism, free jazz, fine art, the French New Wave and comic book art (another previously maligned artform) are worth the entrance fee alone.
“Finders Keepers is very proud to have the means to present Rollin fans with something that they’ve deserved for a long time, and we hope to open up his work to another generation of open-minded viewers, but as far as making apologies for it, or trying to justify it to the out-dated art-house ‘establishment’, well, I’m not here to do their homework.”
“Rollin had to compromise his public integrity on our behalf, just to stay afloat.”
Was it difficult to track down and license the music?
“It was, and still is, difficult, but very enjoyable, mainly because it’s based on detective work and socialising with your heroes, and then with people who become your heroes in the process. The project took on an entirely different schedule than what we initially hoped for, but also came with new relationships and a better understanding of the original films and their back-story, most of which is included in the notes. We spent a lot of time finding Rollin himself and then discussing the project with him and getting his blessing.
“Sadly, due to the way the films were mistreated in the first place and the distinct lack of financing behind them, a lot of the original parts and tapes were missing, so the project is made up of a mixture of studio recordings and music taken from the film reels. Requiem was a film that was almost a no-go from the outset due to the music and dialogue channels on the original print being bounced into one then replaced with a badly dubbed version with distorted music on the music channel. Apparently, as was the case for many desperately low-budget films, the original studio tapes for Requiem along with still photography, scripts, costumes, etc were held back until funds came from the film’s theatrical release and distribution, which inevitably fell through…a familiar story.
“Due to the way the films were mistreated in the first place and the distinct lack of financing behind them, a lot of the original parts and tapes were missing.”
“At this point you have to make a decision based on your own perfectionism and the 40 years of passion surrounding the project – at the end of the day you could present this record as stand-alone music and arguably de-Rollinise it. Jonny Trunk had the same problem with his Wicker Man release, but the added ambient noise eventually became part of the music itself. Eventually someone might turn up out of the blue with the studio tapes, as happened with the new Can box set. This is why this project is still very ongoing, and is already evolving and improving.
“I must also add that the nucleus of this project lies with a a CD that was released in the early 90s by a German label called Lucertola – they were also the very first people to issue the Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab music for Jess Franco’s films that was later packaged as the hugely successful Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party in 1995. They released a very rare Jean Rollin CD [The Films of Jean Rollin] but were very ahead of the game, too far really. 20 years later the climate is a lot warmer for Rollin’s legacy and it’s a shame that they’re not around to bask in it.”
What can you tell us about D’aram and Raph? Do they have many other notable achievements outside of their soundtrack work for Rollin?
“They’re two very different musicians that mark distinct stages in Rollin’s development. Raph is the only artist we couldn’t find, and because of this he’s probably the most intriguing. He was a key artist on a small label run by the publishing company that looked after the band Acanthus, and he produced a couple of singles for this mini-industry. The whole crew for the early films was very incestuous and represent their own underground movement which needs to be documented and recognised, a great family tree with it roots in theatre, Lettrism and the Mai ’68 events…not to mention free love, which at the time was an important weapon against the government and the media, as opposed to a cheap way to sell – or not sell – films. Raph was very versatile and made an operatic record as well as an afro-rock single before disappearing into the unknown.
“This was the time when minimal electronic music found its place in horror films at the hands of John Carpenter and Suzanne Ciani.”
By the time D’aram came along, Rollin had already walked in the shoes of his ‘adult cinema’ counterparts and worked alongside French composers of the scene we now call ‘cosmic disco’. By 1979 D’aram is holding the synths after the beats have left the building; this was the time when minimal electronic music found its place in horror films at the hands of John Carpenter and Suzanne Ciani. In the same year as Fascination he also provided the score for Immoral Woman (a sequel of sorts to Immoral Tales) by Walerian Borowczyk, maker of La Bête and another Polish director that the art-house can’t make up its mind about.
Was either composer doing anything particularly out-there with these scores, or do you think they were going along with a general vogue for psych and synth horror soundtracks? How linked to Rollin’s vision were they?
“I know what you mean, but what attracts me to all of Rollin’s musical collaborators is that they were friends and integral parts of his community, which points to the fact that they were totally genuine and passionate about what they did, part of the message. They were friends, found introduced by friends – Raph through the brother of Requiem’s graphic designer and assistant prdocuer, D’arm through Borowczyk. This is why the music is so important to the films – many, in fact most, directors in the horrortica genre would have simply used library music or, in the case of the Italians, a professional composer linked with the film studios. You can hear that Rollin’s composers were improvising and learning on their feet, just like Rollin himself.”
What role does music actually play in Requiem For A Vampire and Fascination?
“The sound of a bowed saw is used as a key instrument in Fascination, it’s more poetic – a post-pop film with a lullaby soundtrack. Requiem is a real cut-up of pop, folk, jazz and rock, basically the French No-No years firing with all cannons.
“You can hear that Rollin’s composers were improvising and learning on their feet, just like Rollin himself.”
Raph also scored a sex film by Rollin, Jeunes Filles Impudique. How does that compare to his work for Rollin?
“It’s great, Finders Keepers released it as a 45, a lot of drum solos. It’s a short score that covers all bases: acid folk, European jazz a la Komeda, heavy French Batterie and library kitsch. The film itself was made under Rollin’s Michel Gentil alter ego so its pretty obvious that it’s, er… adult.
Rollin made a lot of films with a lot of original music. Why did you home in on the Requiem and Fascination scores for these vinyl editions? Are they just better than the rest?
“The first Rollin score we actually released was Acanthus’s Frisson De Vampires, which was an instant favourite even before we got submerged in the back-story. In simple terms we picked his vampire films as opposed to his thrillers, zombie films or sexploitation flicks. Otherwise it gets a bit kid-in-a-candy store. But yes, in other words the vampire films have the best music.”