Director/Screenwriter: Jean Rollin
By Roderick Heath
Comparisons, as they say, are odious, and yet are utterly vital to criticism. Only by contrasting differing takes on similar ideas, conventions, and templates do telling disparities emerge. For instance, watching Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Jean Rollin’s Fascination within a short time of one another was a revealing exercise that was akin to beholding identical twins, one good and the other evil. Both films are set very early in the twentieth century and evoke the crumbling façade of Victorian images of female identity in the face of simmering natural urges. Each makes a meal out of old-fashioned generic conventions, sports male protagonists drawn into danger by an illusory vision of fragile femininity, and uses ironically beautiful visuals as a veil for suggested depths of unspeakable mystery and depravity.
Whilst being just as beautiful as Hanging Rock, Fascination is an altogether more aggressive, “exploitative,” and yet forceful and intoxicating film than Weir’s mainstream, arty realisation of those ideas. Rollin offers doll-like period femmes engaging in murder, lesbianism, and pagan worship, sacrificing not themselves but males to a suppressed cabalistic urge. After the failure of his finest, if unevenly realised film, Lèvres de Sang, in 1975, Rollin was forced into the skin market and made a couple of straight porn films. When he resurfaced with Fascination, he brought with him from those films his memorably carnal star, Brigitte Lahaie. Rollin was a follower of both gothic literature and cinema, in identifiable accord with film-makers like Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and in particular, the progenitor of French fantastic cinema, Louis Feuillade. Like those directors, Rollin turned low-budget production into a virtue with his irrepressible air of handcrafted, homemade invention. Whilst belonging to the seamier fringes of ’70s cinema, Rollin’s works communicate an airy kind of radical-chic perversity essayed with a rigorous simplicity of production and style, imbued with an elegiac visual quality that bore the unmistakable imprint of a great cinematic eye.
Rollin’s starting point in this story is intriguingly based in a true vogue in the age before vitamin tablets, when fashionable people would travel to slaughterhouses to drink the freshly spilt blood of animals to cure anaemia. The film commences with two ladies of decorous attire and deportment, Elisabeth (Franca Mai) and Eva (Lahaie), standing amidst splattered gore. They unnerve some other genteel imbibers by nakedly enjoying the blood; Eva languorously laps at the liquid on her lips and peers with cobra-like intensity at the other, alarmed patrons. Meanwhile, a gang of criminals who call themselves “Apaches” have a falling out with dandyish fence Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire), who’s supposed to exchange a chest of gold coins they’ve obtained for money in London. When they realize Marc intends to rip them off, he kidnaps their tomboyish female comrade (Myriam Watteau) at gunpoint and, rejecting her offer to be his squaw, abandons her in the forest. She angrily leads her fellows in pursuing him, and Marc is nicked in the neck by a bullet. He takes refuge in a remote chateau situated on an island in a lake that is linked to the land by a bridge, and finds the only two people currently residing in the cavernous structure, Elisabeth and Eva.
Marc, full of swaggering, cocksure poise, thinks he has the pretty pair of haute bourgeois femmes over a barrel, but who exactly is in danger soon becomes very moot. Rather than freaking out when Marc locks them in their bedroom, the two ladies screw each other, and make fun of him by pretending to beg for help when he comes in. Eva willingly has sex with him to distract him whilst Elisabeth sneaks away his pistol, but instead of taking command of the situation, she places the gun in her mouth as if to shoot herself. She then returns the weapon to Marc, as two things soon become clear: the two women are carefully constructing a scenario they know Marc can’t resist, and Elisabeth has deep misgivings about this arrangement. When the Apaches arrive and besiege the chateau, Eva goes out to pacify them, letting one member mount her in the neighbouring stable. She stabs him in the stomach and in a memorable flourish of eruptive feminine savagery, takes up a scythe and slashes the throats of the other Apache males waiting to pull a train on her. She then confronts the girl on the bridge and dispatches her with relish in spite of the girl’s attempts to defend herself with a knife.
Rollin’s sexy, mordant, performance-art, shoestring sensibility is not for everyone, of course, and he was rather cynical when it came to satisfying the skin market, manifest here in the extended soft-core sex scene between Eva and Elisabeth. And yet that’s part and parcel with the authentically erotic and poetic evocations of his style, which was far more sophisticated than the pathetic efforts of Hammer and many other filmmakers of the ’70s to sex up their horror. This may be because it was an innate aspect of Rollin’s imaginative fixations and a genuinely anarchic bent in his work, rather than just a way to make money. Some disagreement between film scholars manifests around whether Rollin’s work in general, and Fascination in particular, represent liberated or misogynist genre visions of female sexuality and strength.
To a certain extent, both viewpoints have validity: Eva is both an extreme vision of a murderous lesbian, but also a kind of superheroine of the horror genre rarely equalled on screen, a riposte to the many masked, marauding, masculine aggressors about to be unleashed in innumerable slasher films, as she efficiently destroys the Apaches and effortlessly ensnares Marc in a deadly game. The image of Lahaie, partly nude, wielding that colossal scythe, stalking toward the girl on the bridge, is the hallowed concept of the femme fatale boiled down to a singular, iconographic figure not quickly forgotten. Of course, politicised interpretations of such material are never particularly wise, because horror movies are truly about explicating and configuring anxieties, not dispelling or solving them. But the fact that Rollin plays taunting games with the roles of aggressor and victim here is stimulating and enjoyable on several levels, and it’s intrinsically subversive in a genre so often defined by male-on-female violence to turn the tables with such thorough purpose. Even Feuillade’s beloved anti-heroine Irma Vep was always on the leash of some male overlord, whereas Rollin’s femmes here only answer to themselves. There’s a quality of girl’s-own fantasy frolic and dreamily sensualised mood to the film that’s perhaps not such a distance from Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and certainly similar to Duelle: une quarataine (1976).
As the funny games continue, the chateau soon fills with other members of the strictly female cult of blood-drinking devil worshippers led by the queenly Hélène (Fanny Magier), who continually warns Marc that at midnight, the games will end. Naturally, Eva and Elisabeth were kept alone at the chateau to provide the honey trap for a passing male to sacrifice at their midnight mass. As the evening goes on, Marc plays with the coven, indulging in sport like blind man’s bluff, before Hélène submits with knowing patience to a moment of sadomasochistic bluff on Marc’s part, in which he tries to ruffle her air of serene Brahmin composure. Elisabeth has proclaimed to Marc that she’s fallen in love with him, and promises to save him. When midnight arrives, however, he discovers the female Apache’s body, and realising that he’s in serious danger, confronts Hélène, who states that the game has been spoilt, and he’s free to go. But Eva still tries to kill him, prompting Elisabeth to shoot her lover.
Here, Rollin’s familiar, forlornly nihilistic, emotional punch manifests clearly in Lahaie’s horrified face as she gasps “You were mine!” in bewildered betrayal and Elisabeth leaves her to be torn apart by her blood-lusting fellows. Like Godard, Rollin had a total contempt for merely pyrotechnic realism in on-screen violence, and none of the moments of bloodshed in Fascination try to be convincing in a traditional fashion, happy to slather on some sticky red stuff and call it gore. Yet this renders the climactic evisceration of Eva by the other ladies all the more weirdly compelling in its lack of artifice. Indeed, that’s a quality of Rollin’s cinema that’s consistently striking in the way he both stylises and strips away pretence from his filmmaking, with his intense feel for physical context, the way he imbues objects and settings with a delicately tactile quality that borders on the fetishistic, the way his camera slowly pans across the antiques of the chateau and the women’s skin uniting in a singular texture—one part erotica, one part anthropology, with that powerful sensualism so often found inherent in the iconography of a seemingly oppressive historical milieu well explicated. It’s also worth noting that Fascination is the best-acted of Rollin’s films, particularly by the forceful Lahaie, who managed to bring some of her no-holds-barred sexuality to the mainstream in Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June (1990), and Magier’s exactness as the wicked countess so beloved of S&M literature.
Marc, like the hero of Lips of Blood and the subsequent La Nuit des Traquées, is defined by his determination to puzzle out a mystery that finally confirms a streak of danger-courting masochism lurking within his nature, in pursuing the image of the woman he so badly wants to find through to a self-consuming end, but unlike those other characters, he’s a self-satisfied jerk whose comeuppance is more desirable than that of the brilliant Eva. Another quality reminiscent of Godard is the similarity of the determinedly antisocial cabal of women to the revolutionaries of Week-End (1967), who likewise have turned a bourgeois society’s mores inside-out through the literal act of cannibalism.
Fittingly, as Hélène predicts, Elisabeth’s suppressed addiction to bloodshed finally conquers her, and she shoots Marc when they’ve escaped, murmuring to herself that “the love of blood may be more than that of the body in which it flows,” and that “I don’t think I ever loved you…what I liked was…” and trailing off as she wipes his blood upon her lips. She returns to Hélène, perhaps to be her new lover, and the film freezes, concluding an elegant kind of horror on the most uniquely uneasy of notes. And yet perhaps the film’s most lingering and affecting vision comes near the start, as Elisabeth and Eva dance together on the bridge, an idyll Elisabeth has thrown away, it’s suggested, merely to satisfy a yearning that has proved all too hollow. But the instinct of the blood conquers all pretences, eventually.