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Jean Rollin (1938 - )
Date of Birth: 3 November 1938
For a nation that virtually invented fantastic cinema thanks to the genius that was Georges Méliès, France has produced remarkably few directors who have been closely associated with the fantastique. Jean Rollin is one of the very few to have made any kind of mark on the genre thanks to a string of surreal, erotic and decidedly odd chillers that infuriate and delight fans in almost equal measure.
Born Jean Michel Rollin le Gentil on 3 November 1938, in Neuilly-sur-Siene, France to actor / theatre director father, Rollin and his brother were both encouraged to take up artistic interests from a very early age. Rollin fell in love with cinema after seeing Abel Gance's Capitaine Fracasse (1942) at the age of five and developed an abiding love for fantasy novels and stories.
At the age of 15, his mother bought him a typewriter and the young Rollin found a way to channel his innate creative urges. He began cranking out short stories and even screenplays. He was particularly influenced by Hollywood serials and maintains that many of the scenes in his otherwise entirely unique films are heavily informed by this most unlikely of sources.
At the age of 16, Rollin went to work at the animation studio Le Films des Saturne, mostly working in administration, but also landing a minor crew position on a documentary about the huge aircraft engine factory at Snecma. Military service beckoned and Rollin found himself working with Claude Lelouch in the film department, making a pair of army recruitment films (Mechanographie and La guerre de silence), Lelouch directing and Rollin editing.
On leaving the army, Rollin made his first film as director, Les amours jaunes (1958). He was working at a newsreel company, employed as an editor, and befriended one of the company's resident cameramen who gave him a 35mm Maurigraphe camera to use at weekends. Gathering together a makeshift cast and crew, he set off for a beach near Dieppe (beaches were to become something of an obsession for Rollin in his later films) to make his debut short. He tried to make a second film, Ciel de cuivre, in 1961 but failed to finish it and Rollin has claimed that the footage he did shoot has now been completely lost.
A stint as assistant director followed, helping out Jean-Marc Thibault on Un cheval pour deux (1962), before he started prepping his first feature film, L'Itineraire marin. Unfortunately, after shooting almost an hour's worth of material, Rollin ran into financial difficulties and was unable to find the money required to finish it.
In 1964, Rollin was asked by a Parisian left wing group sympathetic to the Spanish resistance to shoot a political short about Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Vivre en Espagne, a harrowing experience which resulted in Rollin and his crew being pursued out of Madrid by Franco's police force! Struggling to make ends meet, Rollin started writing novels, something that he would continue throughout his film career.
His first novel, Les pays loins, was a science fiction story that never got published due to the death of Rollin's publisher Eric Losfeld. The title, though not the actual story, was recycled by Rollin for a short SF film in 1965.
In 1967, his film career still not really going anywhere, Rollin turned to comics. He and artist Nicolas Deville had proposed a storyline to Losfeld who had already published Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella, and it eventually saw print as Saga of Xam, a science fiction tale about a young alien woman and her adventures of Earth.
Then came the breakthrough that Rollin had been waiting for. Parisian distributor Jean Lavie had bought the rights to the PRC horror film Dead Men Walk (1943) which he intended to release theatrically in a couple of specialist venues, but it was far to short to make up a program on its own. Lavie asked Rollin to make a 30 minute horror short to accompany the film and Rollin came up with the script for Le viol du vampire / The Rape of the Vampire (1968).
Looking for the necessary funds, Rollin spoke to Sam Selsky, an American producer and distributor based in Paris, and persuaded him that financing the short was a sure-fire winner as it was guaranteed at least a few screenings. Selsky agreed and, working with next to no money, Rollin persuaded several friends to help him out and made Le viol du vampire / The Rape of the Vampire, which actually came in at around 45 minutes. Selsky was so impressed with what Rollin had done on such a meagre budget that he decided to stump up the money needed to turn it into a feature.
Expanded to feature length by the addition of a second segment (titled La reine des vampires / The Queen of the Vampires), the black and white film was a strange, surreal and almost incomprehensible affair that Selsky thought might click with an audience precisely because it was so odd. It introduced many of the themes that would recur throughout Rollin's body of work - the surreal, dreamlike, elegiac narratives; the highly eroticised, fetishistic vampires; the slow, deliberate pacing. It was a flop at the box office (being dismissed by one critic as the work of drunks escaped from an asylum) and is said to have even sparked violence at some screenings.
Rollin was overcome by the reaction to the film - critics snarled, audiences rioted and even his cast and crew turned on him. The improvised story and dialogue were just too much for most audiences, but the publicity did Rollin no harm at all and he set about making his second film, another erotic vampire tale, La vampire nue / The Naked Vampire (1969), this time in colour. Vampires would become a staple of the films made by Rollin and Selsky over the next few years - Le frisson des vampires / Shiver of the Vampires (1970), Vierges et vampires / Requiem For a Vampire (1971) and Lèvres de sang / Lips of Blood (1975).
Many of these films - and others shot by Rollin during this period - featured the same cast over and over again, among them the twins Catherine and Marie-Pierre "Pony" Castel, Mireille Dargent and, later, Brigitte Lahaie.
During the 1970s and 80s, Rollin also dabbled in the increasingly popular zombie movie, to varying degrees of success. Les raisins de la mort / The Grapes of Death (1978) was very good indeed and La morte vivante / The Living Dead Girl (1982) is outstanding, one of his very best films, but Le lac des morts vivants / Zombies Lake (1980), which he inherited from Jesus Franco who failed to turn up on the first day of shooting, was an unmitigated disaster. Hilarious, yes, but bloody awful nontheless. He also made the extraordinary La rose de fer / The Iron Rose (1973) during this period, a wonderful, defiantly uncommercial and almost indescribable film that seems to exist in a genre all its own.
The brilliant La morte vivante / The Living Dead Girl was the last horror film Rollin made for over a decade as he turned his attentions instead to hardcore porn before fading away somewhat as the 80s wore on. In 1990, he started work on a television film, La griffe d'horus, a detective thriller based on the popular French literary character Harry Dickson. After some immense problems with the potential backers, Channel 1, Rollin ended up shooting just 2 minutes before the project collapsed.
Frustrated by the lack of work, Rollin was ready to turn his back on film making altogether and returned full time to his writing. In 1993, he made his directorial comeback with the troubled Killing Car. Rollin fell ill shortly after principal photography was finished and Rollin has claimed that no completed print of the film now exists. The following year he made another porn film, the supernaturally tinged Le parfum de Mathilde, though he remained uncredited on the final prints.
Around this time, Rollin's earlier work was suddenly rediscovered when British video distributors Redemption started issuing cut prints in the UK and uncut ones in the States. Although grey marketeers Video Search of Miami had done much to encourage a Rollin fanbase in the States, it was the Redemption releases that really gave Rollin's films the new generation of fans they deserved.
As Rollin started to develop a cult following, he found it easier to get his films made and in 1997, he made his first vampire film since Lèvres de sang / Lips of Blood in 1975, Les deux orphelines vampires / Two Orphan Vampires, based on his own novel. It was followed in 2002 by another vampire film, La fiancée de Dracula.
Jean Rollin's films are very much an acquired taste. On first experience,
they can appear obtuse, impenetrable, just too odd to deal with. But
repeated exposure to their strangeness reveals levels of pleasure and
meaning that are elusive on first viewing. His sex films are less interesting
but the stylised, highly sexualised vampire films of the 70s and, particularly,
La morte vivante
/ The Living Dead Girl come very highly recommended indeed.
La rose de fer
(script, director) (performer)
des traquées (script, director)
Le sourire vertical (performer)
La comtesse Ixe (director (as Michel Gentil))
Douces pénétrations (director (as Michel
Hard pénétration (director (as Michel Gentil))
Vibrations sensuelles (director (as Michel Gentil))
Lèvres entrouvertes (director (as Michel Gentil))
Positions danoises (director (as Michel Gentil))
Saute-moi dessus (script, director director of photography,
editor (all as Michel Gentil))
Lèvres gloutonnes (performer)
Petites pensionnaires impudiques (director (as Michel
Remplissez-moi... les 3 trous (director (as Robert Xavier), performer)
Entrez vite... vite je mouille! (performer (as Michel Gentil))
Gamines en chaleur (director (as Robert Xavier))
Pénétrations vicieuses (director (as
Sodomanie (script, director (as Robert Xavier))
La guerre de silence (editor)
Last Updated: 1 January, 2009
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