1970s, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Fascination (1979)



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.

2000s, Foreign, French cinema, Romance

Amélie (2001)

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain


Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

By Roderick Heath

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie remains the highest-grossing French film of all time and a movie that pierced the cultural awareness of the English-speaking world as very few recent foreign-language films have managed. It was, and is still, regarded as a “feel-good” film par excellence, a label that is as often used as a pejorative as it is in praise, with some at the time of its release even stating that the film ran into trouble with some French critics because it courted that designation. Whether or not Amélie is simply a movie designed to elicit cheer in an audience demands we actually ask what, generically or even commercially speaking, a feel-good movie is and whether or not a feel-good film is necessarily simple. Because Amélie is surely not a simple or simplistic film, either stylistically or dramatically, in portraying a heroine pursuing happiness not only for herself, but also the people she may or may not know.


Geoffrey Mcnab, writing for The Independent newspaper, listed 25 feel-good films, including Saturday Night Fever (1977) for “mixing blue-collar realism with feel-good escapism.” The word “escapism” is particularly important, because it implies a removal from the actualities of life. Yet, many of the films Mcnab lists take a distinctive, real-world setting and face troubling facts of life, which suggests the feel-good template demands looking at those actualities, as painful as they can be, before providing idyllic relief and fulfillment. In Amélie, the shadows of depression, sexual frustration, jealousy, physical frailty, and the possibility of becoming entrapped by despair and rejection lurk as vividly for its fantasist heroine as for the people in whose lives she tries to providentially intervene. Whilst the film often seems to bend arcs of probability in flagrantly improbable directions, its grounding in immediate and troubling situations is consistent.


Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) becomes a kind of performance artist specialising in making feel-good movies out of the lives of the people she knows. She arranges unlikely romances, conjures acts of moral reward and reprisal, falsifies great coincidences of fate, and tries to uplift and inspire hope in even the most isolated and forlorn of folk, all flourishes that can be associated with the ideal of entertaining films. She tries to step back from her actions, to maintain an almost godlike distance, and leave the recipients of her good deeds to bask in the glories of chance and fate that have benefited them. The concept of providence, of things that are meant to be, perhaps underlies some assumptions associated with the feel-good film, which seek to assure that things will indeed be alright, as if intended so. Mcnab’s article mentions Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in which small quirks of fate gave its hero the correct answers for a game show, until he is forced in the very last question to rely entirely on chance, and again wins: fate is quite literally on his side, but not in any fashion that is acknowledged by the passive heroes or presented with any irony by the filmmakers. In Mcnab’s top pick, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) is resuscitated by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). In Amélie, when the heroine arranges for Dominique Bretodeau (Maurice Bénichou) to rediscover his childhood trinkets, Bretodeau believes his guardian angel must have arranged it. Amélie casts herself in the role of magical sprite returning to people their lost childhoods and lovers, a one-woman conqueror of the vagaries of chance and fate.


Simultaneously, Jeunet’s filming presents a series of ironic discrepancies that reflect not only Amélie’s assumptions, imaginings, and desires, but also the film’s own purpose, beginning with the fact that filmmaking itself announces its godlike authority. Jeunet utilises an omniscient narrator (André Dussollier) and a flagrantly showy editing and photographic style that willfully digresses and explicates matters far removed from Amélie’s immediate perception, offering at will climatic details, deeply withheld personal fantasies, and characters’ memories. The narrator, and the director driving the movie, lay out with loopy concision those vagaries of happenstance Amélie battles, from offering up such details as the suicidal Canadian woman who claims her mother’s (Lorella Cravotta) life, to tracing the converging paths of various protagonists, to fateful moments and a series of what Jeunet called “positive and magical images.”


The fastidiousness with which the film outlines such twists of serendipity constantly confirms their improbability. Jeunet had utilised such narrative ploys before in his two feature collaborations with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1991) and Cité des enfants perdus (1995), especially in a sequence in the latter film in which the central protagonists’ lives are saved by the intervention of coinciding events that tie together mice, strippers, and an ocean liner. Such storytelling dazzles with its invention, but also signals the directors’ knowing viewpoint by not merely contriving a happy ending, but offering the most contrived one possible. In Amélie, Jeunet deliberately dangles the threat inherent in chance, before then corralling the story toward a given end, much as Amélie conjures a series of absurd events that might have transpired to prevent her prospective boyfriend from making a rendezvous, in indicating how difficult getting from Point A to Point B in a world of infinite possibility can be.


Amélie’s own transformative imagination, which imbues everything about her with a visionary potential, is matched by Jeunet’s employment of CGI techniques to conjure an idealised, graffiti-free, nostalgically perfect Montmartre. When Amélie properly becomes a kind of filmmaker, recording fragments of wonder from the television for the benefit of the frail recluse Dufayel (Serge Merlin) the “Glass Man,” she edits together fragments of reality—horses running with cyclists, tap-dancing peg-legs—that evoke how often the world slips its own limits of credulity. Amélie, and the film around her, draw attention to the possibility of orchestrating chaos, and the enormous varieties of existence on Earth. As Amélie discovers, however, life does not obey all that she demands of it, and Jeunet refuses to suggest everything is correctable. The romance she helps stoke between hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) and pathologically jealous café regular Joseph (Dominique Pinon) sees a brief interlude of comically intense romance soon give way to familiar patterns of behaviour; likewise, Amélie finds few of her interventions have immediate transformative impact.


Amélie herself, daughter to “a neurotic and an iceberg,” is, under her elfin bob, repressed—sexually and emotionally incapacitated and unable to engage directly with the world. She and Dufayel explore her ambiguities and faults through a stand-in, a figure in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” Dufayel paints over and over, who is defined by the fact her face is partially hidden by a glass. Hipolito (Artus de Penguern), the film’s only, actual designated artist, is a commercial failure who claims: “I love the word ‘fail.’ Failure is human destiny.” Hipolito’s creed throws into relief both Amélie’s dedication and her shortcomings. The best she can hope for is to offer moments of wonder for people, stimulating them through totemistic acts that are open-ended in their possibilities. As Amélie becomes a variety of artist, the film reproduces cultural tropes and popular and celebratory art constantly in a cornucopia of references: Impressionist painting, blues music (Sister Rosetta Tharp), French chanson (Édith Piaf), masked heroes (Amélie imagines herself as Zorro), Don Quixote, Looney Tunes cartoons, Citizen Kane (Amélie’s imagined obituary newsreel), and Soviet propaganda films. In one scene, Amélie watches Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), which Jeunet’s directorial technique mimicks, particularly the fastidious voiceover in Jules et Jim, as well as the editing style and alternating emotions of its predecessor in Truffaut’s canon, Shoot the Piano Player (1960).


Jeunet’s structure thusly encompasses a vast array of cultural references not dissimilar to the way the apartment building in Delicatessan housed an array of classic French eccentrics. Dufayel’s self-isolation evokes both the works and lives of French Impressionists: he worships Renoir and suffers from a disease similar to that from which Toulouse-Lautrec suffered. His hermetic universe, shaky and brittle, is also repetitive and assailed, and cannot long countenance the intrusion of the garrulous, put-upon Lucien (Jamel Debbouze) and his less elevated references. “Lady Di! Lady Di!” Dufayel mocks him, before declaring: “Renoir!” Dufayel’s fixation with the glories of the past is both intensive and helpful and yet also as closeted and vulnerable as he is. He only uses his video camera to tell the time, until Amélie conjures for him more expansive visions. She doesn’t draw him away from his obsessions, but she does broaden his world. Likewise, his singular meditations hand Amélie vital metaphors for understanding herself. The necessity of engaging with life in any fashion as a creative act, not as success or failure but as engagement, is continually reasserted.


In the film’s most important plot arc, Amélie engages in a romance with Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) that is expressed through those fragments of the world with which both of them are obsessed, possessing as they do very similar sensibilities, but radically different attitudes. Where Amélie as a child was lonely, Nino was harassed. Where Amélie plays god, looking down on the world from rooftops, Nino is happy to make fetishes of the traces left by everyday human actions—footprints and torn-up railway station photographs, rolling on the dirty floor in his attempts to retrieve them. Amélie expresses herself in do-gooding, Nino does so in dressing as a fun fair ghoul and scaring people. Amélie, a waitress, is scared of and unfulfilled by intimacy, whilst Nino works in a porn store, scared of and unfulfilled by intimacy. Their opposing traits nonetheless revolve around a shared sense of the world both as friendly—Nino is as beloved as a hopeless romantic and weirdo by his friends as Amélie is by hers—and alienating, something that can only be safely approached from the outside through its detritus and busted hearts.


Nino, and through him Amélie, who recovers his scrapbook, had developed a fascination for a bald, unknown man whose pictures he regularly recovered from the photography booths. This man becomes emblematic of the vast mystery of life both Nino is trying to perceive and Amélie is trying to master. In the end, only she can lead Nino to the simple realisation that the mystery man is the repairman for the photography booths. Amélie engages Nino’s fascination for a kind of semaphore of attraction that manifests through recapitulating the substance of things. And yet Dufayel continually prods Amélie to remember that she can only get what she wants by finally leaving her cocoon of fancy and taking the risk of having her heart busted. In the very opening, Amélie is conceived at the same moment one man scratches the name of his deceased best friend from his address book, and Amélie’s “destiny” is set in play by the death of Princess Diana. Jeunet presents and represents life as being filled with ellipses and imperfect mirrors, and the possibility of one’s heart dying long before one’s body looms underneath Amélie’s antics. Such are the ways in which Jeunet complicates a nominally blithe tale of a waifish Samaritan who finds true love and “the pleasurable side of life,” as he called it.


With a different attitude in screenplay and direction, Amélie and Nino could be portrayed as sad and pathetic types, and yet Jeunet reveals the world through their innocent, but not foolish, eyes. Amélie’s dedication to adding to the happiness of the lives of others confirms not only personal, but communal love as an apex of happiness. The narrative attempts not simply to inspire happiness, but to ask what a pursuit of happiness may involve, proposing finally that whilst romantic companionship is the summit of Amélie’s ambitions, that companionship is inextricably linked with her outsider, observational, artistic nature. Amélie’s actions ennoble not only herself but also her corner of the universe, whilst also giving her the tools to perceive her future mate who would otherwise remain completely invisible. Fate is, finally, on Amélie’s side, too. If Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is “tragic” and Amélie is “feel-good,” Jeunet’s self-conscious flourishes confirm it as a consciously enforced choice—portraying the reality of alienation and frustrated desire as well the transformative capacity of art, love, and communal relationship. Whilst one may feel good at the end of Amélie, its breadth of offered life is both polished with finesse and multitudinous, the result of which confirms that part of achieving happiness is to face down what threatens to destroy us.

1950s, Drama, French cinema

The 400 Blows (1959)

Les Quatre Cents Coups

Director: Francois Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s debut film, is a work around which implicit ironies swirl. It looks as much backwards as it does forwards, to Truffaut’s youthful experiences, and the artworks and ideals he considered vital, as well as attempting to articulate a fresh sense of what the cinema could and ought to be capable of. The movie made an immediate impact, proved a vanguard for the Nouvelle Vague, and ironically, won for Truffaut a director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, from which he had been banned only a year earlier for his notorious savagery as a critic, for the film’s compassionate and lithely expressive outlook. It represented an expansion of the cinematic lexicon, presenting a rich and original achievement precisely by reconfiguring the past of both film and Truffaut’s life experience.

The 400 Blows offered a mode for making directly personal statements on film, without the encumbrances and clichés commercial cinema had developed. And yet it is the film’s intimacy that was striking, its closeness to its subject and lack of showy technique that marked it as special and distinct from the eruptive works of Truffaut’s friend and collaborator Jean-Luc Godard, whose À bout de soufflé competed with The 400 Blows at Cannes (along with a third Nouvelle Vague figure, Alan Resnais, with his Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Truffaut utilised an approach to shooting that other Nouvelle Vague directors would employ. Working on a small budget, he dispensed with bulky and expensive sound and camera equipment, employed natural lighting, and post-dubbed most dialogue and sound effects. He encouraged improvisation in performance, reflecting and influencing the “cinema verité” documentary craft which several Nouvelle Vague directors sprang from. The art was in turning this rough-hewn brand of cinema into an aesthetic asset, but it had clear precursors, most especially in the Italian Neo-Realist works—the “real, crude, natural images” that Truffaut loved—in the works of Jean Vigo and Roberto Rossellini. The 400 Blows concluded with a freeze frame that is now a recognized icon of cinema. Truffaut references classic works of cinema to inform his own vision, especially Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), to the point of virtually recreating one scene from that film, to absorbing the actor-centered style of Jean Renoir, a debt Truffaut acknowledged as vital for the growth of the film’s concept. But it’s an interior, rather than social, perspective that animates the film.

Such innovations might not have amounted to much if the film had been no good, but The 400 Blows was immediately lauded as a great work, rife with authenticity and powerful, novel dramatic epiphanies. Truffaut, like other early Nouvelle Vague directors Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, was a critic for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and the possibilities inherent in bringing an intellectual, culturally informed perspective to filmmaking, steeped in a detailed sense of film lore and theory, as opposed to a technically assured, regimented experience from within studios, became apparent. The film is dedicated to André Bazin, a telling touch both in a cultural sense, as Bazin inspired so much of the young critics’ work, and in a personal sense, for Bazin and his wife had practically adopted Truffaut after the calamitous severance from his parents that the film more or less catalogues.

The 400 Blows, whilst empathising with its young, raffish antihero Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), does as little as possible to manipulate or make melodrama of his story. No wise elder or beneficial authority figure like, say, Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town (1937), is especially, personally interested or sympathetic to Antoine, nor are there reassuring changes of heart on the behalf of his self-absorbed mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) or erratic stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). Truffaut looks at the situation in humane, but unflinchingly pragmatic, analytical terms: unfolding as a process, watching Antoine move from being a scamp, hellraiser, and petty thief to a prisoner and a runaway from the law, and leaving him without his story or life in any way resolved. That Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego is generally accepted, and the subsequent series of films following Antoine into middle age confirms that he survives an adolescence that threatens to be thorny; but this film leaves him hanging at the cusp of a fraught moment of choice.

Truffaut himself remarked that he wanted not to “depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but, on the contrary, to show it as the painful experience it is.” The 400 Blows opens itself up to the experiences of youth, attempting to capture its enthusiasm, amorality, confusion and honesty. Some hint of Antoine’s exceptional potential is given in his love of film and literature, rewriting Balzac off the top of his head in class, but this causes him only strife at this point in his life. Like many boys, his is a world of idols and fetishes, alternately intense and discursive emotions, private standards and amoral reflexes. The major characters in the film have a full-bodied, realistic, self-contained humanity to them; they are capable of actions both admirable and detestable, leaving motives hazy, needing to be teased out, like, say, the years of frustrated combat with classes full of boys that must influence the teacher’s reactions, or whatever makes Gilberte resent her son so intensely. Some motives only become explicit after some time, like the fact that Julien isn’t Antoine’s biological father.

Either way, for all the moments of boyish or familial camaraderie that sprinkle the narrative, there’s a quality of solitude to the characters, a charged distance to which Antoine is heir and also passive mirror. His best friend is René (Patrick Auffay), who finally takes him in to his house when Antoine won’t face his parents after being expelled. Although from divergent backgrounds, Antoine and Rene seem drawn together as friends because both live with detached, inconsistent parents who often leave them to their own devices. The finest, and final flash of familial unity that Antoine and his parents experience is a jaunt to the movies where they see an unlikely choice for a family outing, Paris Belongs to Us by fellow New Waver Jacques Rivette. Rivette’s film is about conspiracies, and Antoine is always aware that this islet of amicability in his family life has been bought with a conspiracy between him and his mother to suppress the truth of her infidelity. Later, when Antoine attempts in his clumsy way to illuminate the truth by writing it in a letter to his father, he only succeeds in cutting himself off completely from his coolly vengeful mother, who summarises her affair as “my bad patch.” It’s a bitter scene, all the more so for the unredeemed hypocrisy. Through Antoine’s perspective, the barriers between adult and childish behaviours are vague, with the adults just as self-centered and buffeted by whim as he is.

The fleeting joys of Antoine’s life are realised chiefly in movement: his ebullience in a fun fair centrifuge, his final escape from the reformatory. He attempts to be self-determining, first within the system, when he works hard to achieve something in class, and then outside it, as when he tries to steal and sell a typewriter to survive without his parents. There’s a quality of the frontiersman to Antoine in the way he treats the city as a terrain in which he must survive, snatching bottles of milk and washing himself in the frozen park. His independence is erratic and often foolish, and yet it’s a reasonable response to a home life in which he is regularly reminded of marital strife and his mother’s dislike for him. And yet his efforts often take him back to where he began. As in the centrifuge, there’s only an illusion of movement. His efforts to achieve something in school see him humiliated and expelled. His effort to be self-supporting with crime sees him try to return the typewriter, only then to be caught. From then on Antoine’s life becomes a repetitious series of closing doors, cutting him off from his past and from his options, as he is processed like a criminal, driven through the city, surveying its lights from the van now through bars, abruptly aware and weeping for a lost freedom that he had previously known only as a natural state.

The reformatory is a break that a magistrate promises will do him good, but it simply proves a harsher, more arbitrary version of what he’s been through—a justice system the writer James Baldwin considered a manifestation of “the least sentimental people on earth.” A tiny infraction sees Antoine receive a slap in the face from a staff member when it took a significant deception to inspire such violence from Julien. The other boys are all up-and-coming criminals and rebels, aligned in militaristic ranks, a state of affairs a wayward individualist like Antoine can’t abide. Jean Constantin’s score continually counterpoints Antoine’s journey with ironic themes, his nighttime prison ride scored to a lilting waltz, the reformatory ranks moving to jaunty marches, providing a sarcastic commentary on what befalls Antoine that, without trying for maudlin identification, throws his perspective into relief. The long, innovative, improvised scene of Antoine being interviewed by a female psychiatrist in the reformatory both offers an unleavened insight into Antoine’s psyche (and that of Leaud) and possesses the qualities of documentary record. In the unblinking focus on Antoine, the sequence also reinforces the distant interest of the psychiatrist, which has largely been that of all the grown authority figures in Antoine’s life, only it’s now objectivised in the use of camera and sound. The technique is possibly also influenced by the long takes and hidden interviewer of Citizen Kane (1941), a film Truffaut loved.

In the concluding scenes, Truffaut shows Antoine running away in a lengthy tracking shot, moving with the boy and yet keeping him center frame, thus emphasising both movement and the exhausting effort of his flight. When he reaches the beach, he sprints out onto the sand to the edge of the sea, and then turns back, his bewildered face caught in that frozen image. The idea of ending a film without actually offering a conclusion was a radical one at the time, and about to be taken a step further by Michelangelo Antonioni just a year later with L’Avventura. And yet it is a decisive moment. Until this point, Antoine has done things as a boy—impulsively, intuitively, haphazardly. Now, having run to the farthest point possible, with his options exhausted, he has to halt and look back in apprehension and decide what the rest of his life is to be. The freeze frame that concludes the film is not merely an interesting technical flourish; it’s a shock, a needle pinning Antoine precisely at the point where, early or not, rightly or not, a boy becomes a man.

It’s this sense of Antoine and his experiences as individual, precious even as they’re painful, that marks The 400 Blows as original and distinctive from realist, representative figures and experiences. “In speaking of himself, he seems to be speaking of us,” Jacques Rivette commented in his review at the time. Truffaut proposes no idealistic solutions to the situation, suggesting rather that the faults in the characters are common faults in human beings and thus unlikely to be altered by institutional changes. Adults will always resent a boy like Antoine, and boys like Antoine will always face their moment of reckoning a hair too early in life. Over and above its achievements as a new way of approaching life on screen, The 400 Blows, even if is was to prove far from the most formally or intellectually radical of the Nouvelle Vague films, proved the capacity of a new style to move and stir audiences. As such, not merely as an individual work, but as a trumpet blast for a moment of great importance in cinematic history, its continued presence in the canon of French and world cinema is readily explicable.

1960s, Drama, Famous Firsts, Foreign, French cinema

Paris Belongs to Us (1960)

Paris nous appartient

Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable. Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito).

Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall. Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?

Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.

In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill. The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life.

And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole. hat things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.

Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.

As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blowup, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.

Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.

1960s, Drama, French cinema

10:30 PM Summer (1966)


Director: Jules Dassin

By Roderick Heath

A dark and stormy night in a small, ancient, Spanish town. A figure prowls through the rain, as light bulbs explode at the cold of the raindrops, and the world seems to shake with some primal force awakening. Within a few moments, just before the lights go out all across the countryside, a man and his mistress have been shot dead, she having advanced fearlessly on her killer just before swallowing a lovely bullet.

Soon the police are out in force hunting for the killer, Rodrigo Palestra (Julián Mateos); the victims were his wife of less than a year (Beatriz Savón) and her lover. Between their roadblocks and the blackout, many travellers passing through are forced to try to spend the night in town, cramming into the corridors of its lone hotel. Amongst them is a quartet of tourists—Paul (Peter Finch), his wife Maria (Melina Mercouri), their young daughter Judith (Isobel Maria Pérez), and their friend Claire (Romy Schneider).

Maria’s a drinker, and her reasons for insisting on Claire coming on the holiday are mysterious, but whatever she wanted, a sure thing is that attraction between Paul and Claire is combusting. Immediately upon hearing about Rodrigo’s plight and history, Maria is fascinated and sympathetic with the wayward murderer, and fixates obsessively on him. She braves the rain and the threatening atmosphere to go for a drink by herself in a local tavern crowded with men arguing furiously about the scandal. An unacknowledged game is going on between herself, her husband, and her friend. Things come to a climax when, as the stranded travellers settle down for the night, Paul and Claire sneak off and kiss on a balcony, Maria spies on them, gripped by a violent mixture of excitement, anguish, and amusement. Then she spies Rodrigo, skipping across the rooftops, trying to shelter from the rain and the spotlights of the police with a dark blanket.

10:30 PM Summer was adapted by Marguerite Duras from her own novella, and it bears close resemblance to other films made from her oeuvre (or the films she made herself), like her collaboration with Alan Resnais, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). She’s flirting with melodrama and exotic kitsch on the surface, but really more a kind of erotic fever dream, trying to look prefeminist European femininity in the eye and also escape it. She has here a perfect avatar: Mercouri, the incredible Greek actress, who prowls through the film with restless, unfulfilled energy and potential, in turns desperate, kittenish, rapacious, devastated, drunken, acute, motherly, and barren.

Duras and Dassin take care to avoid figuring Maria as a nobly suffering martyr; her own vividly kinky intentions slowly become apparent even as she tries to quell them with booze, motivated by desires and emotions and fascinations beyond her own understanding. She soon steals out from the hotel and into her car to aid Rodrigo’s escape from the town, driving out along the highway and turning off to a remote place, where she watches over him. Looking like “a great black bird” when he first appears, a demon lurching out of the dark, Rodrigo slowly emerges from under his sodden blanket, chilled, sick, exhausted, and slowly reborn under Maria’s ministrations. She sits with him until the early morning, before walking out across a dawn landscape of frigid light and reeling birds. She leaves Rodrigo in a hideaway promising to return for him, and returns to the hotel, tired but subtly exultant.

Mercouri’s husband, director Jules Dassin, who died last year, was one of the most talented American directors to appear in the ’40s with a handful of noir mini-masterpieces to his credit (e.g. Brute Force (1947), Night and the City (1949), Rififi chez les hommes (1955)), before meeting and marrying Mercouri and broadening out with the new-wave sex farce Never On Sunday (1960), and the self-satirising heist romp Topkapi (1964). He had survived being chased out of the United States by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but didn’t survive a series of flops after Topkapi. But the first hour of this film achieves an admirable, morbid texture that combines the stark, moody precision of his noir films with a brooding sense of threat and hothouse emotion, aided by breathtaking cinematography and lighting (courtesy DP Gábor Pogány) that conjures a Goyaesque evocation of the nature-assailed Spanish town—the menace of Rodrigo’s destructive progress through the town, and the tavern full of men watching Mercouri in stunned silence as she downs her drinks with careless vigour.

The opening credits of the film commences with a pair of hands soon joined by others clapping out a flamenco rhythm, establishing the film’s darkly compulsive Iberian flavor. The tourist board elements of the landscape are however quickly by vivid feeling and real danger, and offer a means of expression the characters can’t find anywhere else. In the final sequences Maria, Paul, and Claire are enraptured by a flamenco dance that offers the promise of combustible group ecstasy, for Maria in particular. “Maria wants everyone to be in love!” Claire declares. Maria obsesses over, and attempts to rescue Rodrigo, not simply out of personal identification—they’re both stricken, stranded outsiders in the world of passion—but also out of romantic fixation.

Maria immediately reconfigures the sorry, scared Rodrigo as a dark marauder ready to become a perfect fourth for the sexual tennis game she’s playing with Paul and Claire, and also because they’re polar opposites: “He didn’t realise there could be people like us,” she muses at one point, that is, “sophisticated,” modern Europeans who have abandoned the savagery of exterminating unfaithful lovers. Within its diptych structure, the film lays out reversals, opposites, and contradictions: night/day, male/female, old morality/new sophistication. The night belongs to Rodrigo, his vengeful passion, the fecundity of darkness, water, earth (Maria’s unquenchable thirst seems keyed into this), the organically tangled shapes of the Spanish town. The day belongs to Claire and Paul, sneaking off to screw when Maria is passed out from drinking too much, having found, in the harsh light of noon and the white-scoured, moistureless hills of Spain that Rodrigo has shot himself. Maria exterminates herself as thoroughly by drinking too much and giving Paul and Claire a chance to go to bed at last.

The central movement of the film begins in the hotel, Dassin setting up his visual formulas sometimes with care. A long travelling shot along the hallway emphasising bedded couples reflects Paul and Claire’s imminent coupling, whilst a series of shots of people on their own blowing out candles introduces Maria’s solitary venture into the night. Dassin offers a long, point-of-view sequence of her movements from a hotel that is transformed by scant light into an underworld filled with bodies sprawled in sheets that look like corpses in shrouds. Soon, Maria is evading patrols and coaxing Rodrigo down from his perch, and then driving him out into the hinterland to the strains of Shostakovich. Maria, whilst defined by her sexual nature, is also awesome in her maternal qualities. She tends to Rodrigo like a mother bird overseeing a wet, naked chick’s emergence from its shell, and later, to distract her daughter from the ugly emotion gripping the adults over Rodrigo’s suicide, starts singing a song with her, instantly connecting with the child’s easily provoked gaiety as Paul and Claire grimace and ponder.

Almost inevitably, the film begins to lose its grip from here, but it fulfills the promise of its structure as the mysteries resolve and the promise of the night dries up in the sun. Maria is in love with Claire and is feeding on thrills from the prospect of her affair with Paul whom she no longer loves. He’s angry with Maria, disgusted by her alcoholism, attracted to Claire, but still in love with Maria. They collectively dismiss Rodrigo as a coward. Duras’ script, written with Dassin, reveals an awkwardness with film (and English) dialogue, but it’s not exactly supposed to be naturalistic, considering that Duras sprang from the same tradition as Anaïs Nin and Jean Genais, writers who filtered their raw concerns through heightened prose poetry.

In places, Duras’ script takes aim at romantic fluff (at a time when literary and cinematic artists were struggling to find an appropriate argot for rawer portraits of sexual emotion), whilst also respecting its power: “White white white is the colour my true love wears,” Maria drones to Claire upon encountering her in a bathrobe, a sarcastic but also earnest overture; Claire responds by inviting Maria to take a shower with her in a scene invested with a more-than-faint homoerotic crackle. When Claire and Paul finally consummate their affair and the ménage-a-trois reaches a brittle final phase, Maria walks out of the flamenco café, having been raised to a pitch of exultance, and vanishes, forlornly pursued by Paul and Claire. Finch, at the height of his gifts as an actor, infuses Paul with subtleties: his anger at Maria for her alcoholism, his love for her, his mixture of hunger and hesitation in chasing Claire. Schneider’s eyes glitter with fascination and wariness for the strange couple courting her.

The disappointment of the conclusion is that Dassin swaps the drenched noir precision of the beginning, which exactly captures the necessary prose-poetic mood Duras is chasing, in exchange for some tricks awkwardly borrowed from the fashionable arthouse flicks, for example, the frankness of Paul and Claire’s bedroom antics partly obscured by a drizzle of dreamy effects (admittedly, it is supposed to be unclear what is real and what Maria is imagining in her dozing state, but this doesn’t forgive some sad purple dialogue dubbed over it either). The final scene is a complete mistake, a too self-conscious a steal from Antonioni’s L’Eclisse10:30 PM Summer looks to me like a transitional film. Today, spare, cryptic portraits of the psychic and sexual life are more common; how to create psychologically and emotionally penetrating works of film was a major question for earlier directors. This film, like Losey and Pinter’s Accident (1967), which possibly had an easier time of it for centering more happily on male sexual transgressions, stand somewhere between the stylistics of the “alienation” films of the early ’60s and the New Wave, and the approaching full-bore works of Bertolucci, Breillat, Eustache, and others. Whilst no masterpiece, it’s far better than its reputation reflects, and it’s a film worth checking out.

2000s, Drama, French cinema

Boarding Gate (2008)


Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas

By Roderick Heath

Miles (Michael Madsen) is a middle-aged tycoon who owes large sums of money to some disreputable Chinese loan sharks. He announces to his partner Andrew (Alex Descas) that he’s going to sell his share in their business to them. Shortly thereafter, his ex-girlfriend Sandra (Asia Argento) reenters into his life. She had been pimped out to Miles’ business acquaintances and indulged in all the excesses of the high life, leaving her a pale, wraithlike, but still fire-eyed survivor. Entering his office one day, the pair swiftly click back into the taunting, provocative, addled rhythms of relating—she recalling his drugged-up impotence, he proposing that she really loved being his slave-for-hire—that tell the whole gruesome story of their affair. Now Sandra works for a furniture importing firm in France, run by Lester (Carl Ng) and Sue Wang (Kelly Lin), married business partners she met through Miles.

Sandra and her friend and coworker Lisa (Joana Preiss) have their own importing business, with a cocaine shipment coming through in the furniture Sandra plans to sell to finance her final escape from France. She wants to open a nightclub in Beijing, a project Miles refused to finance because he knew she’d never come back to him. But the drug deal turns sour, and Sandra only escapes thanks to the intervention of Lester. She’s having an affair with Lester, which he seems to be obscuring from Sue. Sandra is invited to Miles’ sterile villa, and their woozy relationship seems primed to pick up again, leading to such moments as her tying her belt around his neck and jerking him off, and he locking in her and promising to ravish her. Then, when he’s on his knees, handcuffed and giggling, she pulls out a gun and empties the clip into his back.

Up to this point, and despite the genre suspense of Sandra and Lester’s escape from the blown drug deal, Boarding Gate seems closer in sensibility to the likes of The Night Porter or Last Tango in Paris—an alienation-coated study of a cruelly sensual, destructive relationship, with two epic sequences in which Sandra and Miles converse, flirt, combust, and finally annihilate. Abruptly, the film changes tack with a dancer’s agility, becoming a Hitchcockian chase saga, as Sandra flees her act and we discover the reasons behind it. Into that Orphic realm—that place that Hitchcock defined as the essence of his style of thriller, the place beneath everyday life which must be ventured into to have a hope of returning to life.

Boarding Gate is, in some ways, a pure, reductive B-movie, with Argento as its manga-gorgeous muse (Sandra herself had created a sci-fi heroine for a website with whom Miles identifies her), and depending on Argento’s ever-ready love of stripping off and stripping down to shift from wilted orchid to Venus Flytrap in a blink. Yet it’s also deeply eccentric. Although the plot is more deftly constructed than first glance might suggest, the film never cares particularly about explaining it to us, and the final 20 minutes constantly pervert the expected. Sandra is a morally null heroine who acts through pure, outraged nerve whom we root for mainly because of her nihilistic determination to survive. Sandra’s killing Miles seems an act of amour fou, but actually is motivated by money: she’s been promised to be paid for knocking him off by Lester and Sue, who in turn, have been employed by a shadowy international network, and finally it leads back to Andrew, eager to eliminate his flaky partner. Sandra soon plunges down the rabbit hole. When she reaches Hong Kong, where she has been promised safe haven by Lester, she finds that her friend and confidante Lisa has been murdered by jittery local thugs, and that she, too, seems set for a shallow grave.

The film cunningly constructs a likeness of exploitation, and questions simple dividing lines between the types of abuse people can dole out to each other. Though Miles (like Madsen’s Budd in Tarantino’s Kill Bill) is filled with regret and shame for his evil acts, he also cannot resist resuming them, because they’re all that keeps him alive. He’s a clinically cynical vision of a modern man—a divorced father, consuming aplenty, driven by a nameless lust that only finds it satiety in Sandra, not by being with her but in possessing her. Sandra mocks him with his failed purchase of a Russian petrochemical plant and ebbing clout as a businessman, analogous to his failing grip on her. Her final murder of him is a claim of financial, sexual, and emotional independence, revealing a blunt desire to escape Miles’ intolerable idea of existence.

Director Olivier Assayas, who established himself with Irma Vep (1995), a tribute to a cinematic ur-text (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampyres, 1916), specialises in films about a globalised world with an increasingly fragmented sense of humanity filtered through a hazy, kaleidoscopic visual sensibility that captures an era numbed by technological glaze and the comedown blues after a night of cocktails, Ecstasy, and kinky sex. Boarding Gate forms a loose trilogy with Demonlover (2002) and Clean (2004) as a globe-trotting study of terminal emotional exhaustion, the illimitable capacity for depravity, and the simplicity of decency. Assayas maintains a tenuous space between being a facile, faux moralist, video-clip director like David Fincher and an equally boring, plain moralist through his bare enjoyment of the spectacles of sex and excess and shimmering, surreal surfaces of modernity beneath which lies a grim Hades.

Eventually, astute critics will make a broad study of the modern world through the recurring images and moods in films like Assayas’, Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Matthias X. Oberg’s Stratosphere Girl, Zhang Ke Jia’s The World, and the last chapter of Hou-hsiao Hsien’s Three Times . These films are defined by the brutal edifices and labyrinthine guts of great Asian metropolises and the great communality of modern culture, but also its increasing atomization. Their complex quotations and mockeries of genres and pop canards, their sense of vast paranoia that infuses the urban and suburban everyday form the core of a new breed of modern, internationalist filmmaking, broad in compass, sons and daughters of Antonioni and Batman. Assayas’ poor ear for English dialogue often results in scenes that hit their beats too heavily, but that’s pretty well beside the point.

Indeed, Assayas winks at the corny tropes of genre dialogue, especially in Argento’s climactic encounter with a plot-explaining international woman of mystery (played, with a kind of robotic realism, by alt-culture goddess Kim Gordon) who plays gatekeeper to Sandra’s escape. Assayas conscientiously turns the trappings of the international jetsetter life into a glittering mockery. As far as I’m concerned, 2008 is the year of Asia Argento: between this film, Une Vieille Maîtresse, and her father’s The Mother of Tears, she’s taken a hammer to every nicety expected of an actress today. She—not the woefully overexposed Angelina Jolie—is both the sex symbol and symbol smasher of the age. And if Madsen gets any cooler, by the time he hits 60, he’s going to single-handedly reverse global warming. Ng has a lean, Bogartian intensity, and it’s almost a disappointment that he doesn’t get to come out swinging as a badass.

Assayas stages his scenes with an offhand brilliance, building to a breathless gunfight and chase through Honk Kong’s streets and a confrontation with the snide Sue in a karaoke parlour. This comes across as a particularly hellish devastation of the portrait of karaoke parlour as portal of international brotherhood and idealism in Lost In Translation. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux paints in stupefyingly beautiful widescreen frames images of office banality, sexual explosiveness, and exotic locales, all with the same glaze of slithery, icy clarity.

Assayas’ genre bending is a front to explore the nature of ardour. Sandra is no femme fatale, in that she is motivated not by a desire to destroy, but by her spurned capacity for love. The film’s finale is all the more taut for being almost a throwaway, as Sandra, believing Lester has betrayed and abandoned her, prepares to stab him and steal away with the bounty Andrew has paid him. The audience knows that Lester has not betrayed her and has left the rapacious, untrustworthy Sue, so experiences anxiety that she will kill the man who loves her, having been sucked in so far by this inhuman life. But she finally walks away, disappearing into the great contemporary haze, having, one hopes, recognised that she can’t escape her mistakes by annihilating those who hurt her. The simplicity of decency indeed.

1950s, 1960s, British cinema, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Eyes Without a Face (1959) / The Devil Rides Out (1967)


Directors: Georges Franju / Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

What’s the greatest horror film ever made?

Everyone will have a different answer to that, of course. Some will even say it’s an oxymoron. Lately, I caught up with two films that present themselves effectively for the nomination.

In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Eyes Without a Face was a slow, unnerving, arty one-off for Georges Franju, a French filmmaker with a single previous credit—a documentary about slaughterhouses called L’Sang des Bêtes (1946). The Devil Rides Out is rocket-paced, entertaining, and artful. One is made by a French poet slumming and rising up with a pearl, the other by an English professional presenting his sleekest piece of craftsmanship. And yet they also share some qualities. Both films make the fantastic plausible and enthralling with solid settings, realistic detail, and minimalism in their special effects and mise en scène. Both films tell tales that involve a slow dive from a world of the everyday into bottomless pits of depravity. Both were unpopular at the time of their releases.

It’s virtually impossible to see Eyes Without a Face without prior knowledge as to what it’s about, and yet the way it introduces its audience to its grisly tale as a starkly unfolding mystery is cinematic narrative intelligence defined. The introductory scene instantly grabs attention, raising dozens of questions as it presents them. We see a woman (Alida Valli, in fact) driving a car—her face a map of anxiety—keeping an eye on the suited, hatted figure resting on the backseat and becoming electric with fear when a pair of headlights speed up behind her vehicle. It proves to be just an overtaking van. What is she afraid of? The answer comes in the subtlest, deftest of shots—the figure in the back of the car slumps over slightly, unmistakably a corpse. Soon, Valli is dragging this body, which proves to be that of a young woman, to dump in a lake.

The police cannot identify the corpse, so they call in two men who both have missing daughters, one of whom, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a reputed surgeon, immediately identifies it as his girl. But it isn’t. His daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), was horrendously injured in a car accident and disappeared from the hospital. She lives in his villa up the road from the small hospital he runs, and is so disfigured she wears an eerie mask that mimics her proper face and yet travesties it. The discovered corpse was actually the result of a botched attempt by her father to perform a complete facial graft. The murdered girl is laid to rest in the cemetery under the stern eye of the doctor, his assistant Louise (Valli), whom he rescued from disfigurement, and Jacques (François Guérin), Christiane’s fiancé. Christiane places the blame for both the accident and his sickening quest on her father’s relentless desire for control. Indeed, for all Génessier and Valli’s “caring” motives, their icy savagery is revealed as all the more appalling as Valli tricks a young Swiss student (Juliette Mayniel) into their lair, where Génessier, with surgical skill and precision, slices off her face.

The long operation sequence, which Franju’s camera observes in fixated shots, were highly daring in 1959. Some have suggested Fanju’s film, along with Psycho and La Maschera del Demonio (both 1960), initiated the drift toward splatter-gore movies. But the scene is utterly functional and quite sensitizing, providing an ideal counterpoint to the shallow showiness of modern equivalents. It does prefigure and well outclass elements of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) in exploiting the terror in the notion of awakening in a basement to find someone slicing bits off you. Franju’s approach to gore is interesting. He presents the surgery scene with uncompromising directness, but avoids properly showing Christiane’s disfigurement, for which we have been well prepped by the police discussions (“…and the rats,” mentions one cop disquietingly in discussing her injuries) and the reaction of Mayniel when she sees her.

The taut realism of most of Eyes Without a Face, carefully etched by Eugen Schufftan’s barren cinematography, stands in effective contrast to the potential silliness of its story, not so far from The Raven (1936) or Circus of Horrors (1959), as well as to the carefully placed flourishes of fairytale poeticism that punctuate the tale in which it anticipates Argento’s Suspiria (1976). Christiane is associated with white doves (a pre-accident portrait of her shows her with one seated on her hand) and is confirmed as an innocent for whom life without her face is impossible but for whom the process of getting a new one is even worse.

With her doll-like mask, childish clothes, essential fragility, and friendship with birds and the dogs caged in the basement (which her father uses for his torturous grafting experiments), she evokes a Snow White, Gretel, or Rapunzel at the mercy of an evil sorcerer and stepmother. It’s also not so fantastic as we’d like to think: in her control-freak father seen by the world as a gravely responsible authority figure, keeping his daughter in a state of perpetual juvenility in a home/prison, her beauty spoilt by his actions and henceforth in his hands, it’s not hard to see parallels with the recent Josef Fritzl case in Austria.

The turns of the story’s screws are careful and relentless. The graft of the Swiss girl’s face is apparently successful, Christiane restored to radiant beauty for a time, hoping to live a life for the girls who have been sacrificed as well as for herself. But cell necrosis sets in, and her father has to cut her new face off again, a tale baldly told in a series of photographs he’s taken of her new, then slowly rotting visage. A police investigation proves incredibly half-hearted and only succeeds in placing in danger a pretty, young shoplifter (Beatrice Altariba), who volunteers as bait. Therefore, the film can only end in a kind of familial apocalypse. To save this potential victim, Christiane stabs her evil pseudo-stepmother in the throat and releases her animal friends, the baying dogs to tear her father to pieces before she wanders out into a dark world, her face still a waxen mystery, a dove perched on her hand once more.

Franju’s poised camera is aided by a world-class set of collaborators—within a few years, DP Schufftan and composer Maurice Jarre, whose creepy-carnival score ties the film together with sickly romanticism, would have Oscars. The team of writers adapting Jean Redon’s novel include future director Claude Sautet and the famed writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also provided the source material for Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Vertigo; like those films Eyes Without a Face retains a mysterious poise between the familiar, even seedy, and the fantastic, the threatening. Brasseur, best known for his delightfully charismatic performance in Les Enfants du Paradis, is the total antithesis here, as a dour, obsessive patriarch who keeps his emotions so deeply buried they only find proper expression in obscene activity. Scob effectively embodies a brittle innocence.

The Devil Rides Out apparently was the idea of Christopher Lee, who was something of a fantasy literature freak and who prodded Hammer Films to tackle Dennis Wheatley’s large canon. Wheatley, a skilled adventure writer with a gift for plot and pace, beloved of crackpots and counterculture acolytes as well as blood-and-thunder fans, contrived a fantastically broad conflation in his Black Magic novels, many of which featured the heroic Duc de Richlieu, in a kind of new-age wonderland that placed all religions and superstitions on a roughly equal footing. This mystical egalitarianism was undercut by Wheatley’s tendencies to racial stereotyping and cultural cliché. His terrific, if convoluted, 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out was the first of these and a huge success. For the screenplay, Richard Matheson offered a stripped-down version of the novel’s narrative that cleaned off all the fat and the spiritualist mumbo-jumbo, leaving a tale that suited director Terence Fisher’s no-nonsense aesthetics perfectly.

Fisher had been on the outs with Hammer since the flop of his version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and fought his way through with the impressive The Gorgon (1963) and the delightfully tacky Island of Terror and Island of the Burning Doomed (both 1966). Along with the deliciously weird The Lost Continent (1966), Devil began a short-lived Wheatley cycle. As happened several times to Hammer when it became ambitious, the film flopped. The studio template would limp along in the future with soft-core teases like The Vampire Lovers (1970) and more lame Dracula films. The Devil Rides Out then might be considered the high water mark of Hammer Films: its production values are high, the cast generally excellent, and the sets and effects markedly improved from the pasteboard delights of the early films, making for a general lack of cheesy moments. Not that they’re entirely lacking. What fun would a Hammer film be without a little cheese?

Technically, Wheatley’s novel was a sequel, utilising characters set up in his earlier adventure novels. Matheson disposes of these background elements entirely, reducing the relationship between de Richlieu (Lee), Rex van Rijn (Leon Greene), and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) to a simple basis—the Duc and Rex served with Simon’s father in the Lafayette Escadrille. Rex flies in from America to visit his old chums, meeting the Duc at the airport, but when they proceed to Simon’s house, they find he has been co-opted into a mysterious group of strangers, including the dark-haired beauty Tanith (Nike Arrighi) and the silver-haired, charismatic Mocata (Charles Gray). His suspicions stirred, the Duc discovers telltale signs that Simon has become involved with black magic. Rex knocks their friend out, and they carry him to the Duc’s London house, but a baleful influence causes Simon to almost strangle himself with the totemic crucifix the Duc places around his neck. Then it is removed to save his life, Simon immediately runs off. Returning to Simon’s house, the Duc and Rex narrowly avoid falling under the influence of an evil spirit Mocata has invoked—a short, tubby, black guy with glowing eyes.

To dig up a lead (and other things), Rex tracks down Tanith and takes her for a drive in the country. He encourages her to leave the coven and Mocata’s influence, but his plea falls on deaf ears, literally, as Tanith is mesmerised by Mocata in the rearview mirror. Tanith steals his car and drives into the yard of a white mansion with a creepy, multiheaded bird-serpent-thing guarding the front gate. It’s the base for the coven, which then proceeds to an invocation/orgy in the woods where Mocata plans to initiate Simon and Tanith into Satanism. They summon The Goat of Mendes, or, as only Christopher Lee can pronounce it properly, “The Devil himself!” But Rex and the Duc aren’t cowered by the prince of darkness. They drive Rex’s car into the midst of the coven, deliver a few good socks on the jaw, steal away their friends, and hole up in the country manor of de Richlieu’s niece Marie (Sarah Lawson) her husband Richard (Paul “Yes Minister” Eddington), and their child Peggy (Rosalyn Landor).

Fisher’s core contribution to the horror genre was an insistence on cliché-free villainy, the superior attractiveness of on-screen evil today considered axiomatic best defined in Fisher’s Dracula (1958) when the beast that descends the stairs proves not to be a fanged weirdo, but the rakishly handsome Lee. Fisher deftly provides more attractive evil in the form of Gray’s Mocata, described in the book as a pale, bloated creep, but here a lean, charismatic opposite to Lee’s rigorous de Richlieu. Gray’s Mocata, with jolly arrogance, visits the house when the Duc is absent, at first presenting himself as criminally misunderstood and helpful, and then slowly, in a rather brilliantly shot and edited sequence, asserting mesmeric influence over Marie, and driving Simon and Tanith to attack their guardians. Only the interruption by Peggy breaks Mocata’s grip on the household, and he is forced to leave, but with the grim promise that “something will come” in the night.

The Duc knows too well what this entails. Whilst Tanith insists that Rex keep her tied up well away from the others and remain with her in a barn, the Duc clears out Richard and Marie’s living room and sketches a mammoth magic circle on the floor within which they spend the night. They are assailed by psychological assaults, poisoned water, illusions of Peggy in danger, giant tarantulas in one of the genre’s greatest sequences, building in pace with a sleekly mobile camera by DP Arthur Grant, working in widescreen and tight editing. After they have resisted all these torments, eerie silence reigns, to be broken by the distant clatter of a horse’s hooves approaching. This is the Angel of Death himself called by Mocata to cart them all off to hell. The Duc warns them all not to look on his face, but when the armoured Angel lifts the beaver on his helmet, it reveals a grinning skull. Only the Duc’s shouting an obscure spell, the powerful but dangerous Susumar Ritual, seems to drive away the beast—but at a cost. Rex stumbles in with Tanith’s corpse, her soul having been stolen away by the Angel, and Peggy has been seized by Mocata for sacrifice.

From here on the novel rambles a bit, so Matheson and Fisher pare it back. The Duc summons Tanith’s spirit from the underworld, using Marie as the medium, to find where Mocata has take Peggy. Tanith’s fear of a guarding “winged serpent” tips Rex that they are at the white mansion. Simon, having already realised this, has rushed there, but finds he is powerless against Mocata. When the Duc and others arrive, Rex’s two-fisted approach doesn’t exactly cut it, and the Duc is too afraid to use the Susumar Ritual again. But Tanith takes possession of Marie again, and the possessed woman proceeds harmlessly through the coven. She gets the innocent Peggy to repeat the Ritual, and all hell literally breaks lose—the coven bursts into flames, and Mocata collapses when a huge crucifix is revealed behind a curtain. Suddenly, our heroes awaken, still resting within the magic chalk circle. When Rex brings in a very alive and clingy Tanith, the Duc realises that time has been reversed. Tthey have won their battle against Evil, and the reward is that the Angel stole back to Hades with Mocata rather than Tanith. Now that’s a deus ex machina ending.

If The Devil Rides Out largely lacks the bleakly ironic subtexts of Fisher’s initial Frankenstein and Dracula films, it does extend both his love of attractive evil and stern good, which become mutually destructive forces, using and consuming people between them. As in Eyes Without a Face, only the inarguable innocence of young women—here Tanith and Peggy— properly strike down Evil. By stripping away both the background details of the Duc and Mocata, they both become menacing combatants in an eternal, cosmic war. With its serial-like linearity and zippy Jazz-era stylisation, the film seems to have made enough of a mark on pop culture despite underperforming at the box office. I’ve seen it echoed through The Avengers TV series and episodes of Doctor Who, satirised in The Goodies, and possibly even impacted upon those fated fans of both Hammer and the old serials, Spielberg and Lucas, whose Indiana Jones films may just owe something to this film.

1970s, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Lips of Blood (1975)

Lèvres de Sang


Director: Jean Rollin

By Roderick Heath

Jean Rollin was a whole grain cinema anarchist and one of the relatively few French horror directors of his time. He began with homemade shorts and rose all the way to directing homemade features. His films skirt soft-core pornography and, when circumstances require, plunge right in. But he’s also one of the most authentic poets every to take up the art form. Rollin debut feature, Le Viol du Vampire (1967) arose from several shorts he was asked to make for a French distributor who needed to fill out a bill sporting a short American vampire film. Rollin The resulting film was a predictably uneven, but attention-winning mish-mash of surrealism, Grand Guignol, and black humor. Rollin became one of the few true heirs to arise from a long tradition of Parisian underground cinema whose forebears include Feuillade and Bunuel, as well as French Gothic literature (Leroux was his favorite author), and the vast, semivisible world of European S&M comics (one of the major artists of which, Druillet, designed Rollins’ posters and appeared in Le Viol). Visually, Rollin’s films, with their semiclothed females arranged in geometric forms and intensely fetishist poses, recreate that style vividly. As in Feuillade and the early Dali-Bunuel collaborations, he utilised Paris, that marvellous free set, and set up against it the most bizarre and impossible images he could concoct.


His masterpiece is Lèvres de Sang. When I say masterpiece I maintain proportions. It’s not a film as free from defects and soaring in its ambitions as Les Enfants du Paradis or The Seven Samurai. In the murky realm of ’70s Euro-cinema, experimental, genre, and off-beat directors maintained their careers by spicing their films with nudity to satisfy fleapit theatre crowds and the distributors who serviced them. For Rollin, this was hardly a problem; he was dedicated eroticist, and his films enact the sexual aspects most horror films depict only metaphorically. They’re adult fairy tales, dressed in gothic-erotic clothing. To see how good Rollin was at this, it’s an easy task to compare the unembarrassed sexuality of Lèvres de Sang with any late-period Hammer film, say, Twins Of Evil (1972), and outclassed many a more high-toned director’s efforts to interrogate the genre.


In Lèvres de Sang, Rollin presents an uncompromisingly direct study of the incestuous that underlies many vampire mythology which has corrupt ancestors heave off the lids of their tombs and spread disease and death among their descendants. Simultaneously, Lèvres de Sang succeeds in capturing a note of wistful longing for the scenes, hints, landscapes, people that remain on the very horizon of childhood memory, which can, thanks to some small evocation—the right tint of light, a smell, a familiar face—lance right through your adult perceptions and memories to present unfulfilled chances and unanswered questions, even mysteries. The film begins in a dank crypt where a middle-aged woman with a girlish face, wearing a veil and furs, is supervising men who are placing in the crypt several coffins. Cut to an exterior shot of a ruined chateau—a pull-back reveals it’s just a photo on the wall of a Parisian apartment, where a Bunuel-boring society party is occurring. A man in his thirties, tall, blonde-haired Frédéric (Jean-Lou Philippe, who also cowrote the screenplay with Rollin), is stricken in fascination by the image to the point of ignoring his girlfriend. He shakes himself from his reverie and finds her lounging on a divan with a black-haired woman, who, in reply to Frédéric’s compliment of her perfume, suggests a pretty smell is like a memory or a beautiful woman, the most precious and transitory of thrills. Frédéric drops into a memory. As a boy, lost at night, he entered the ruin. Dwelling within it was a teenaged girl (Anne Briand) with short brown hair, a pale face, red lips, and draped in white clothes, who greeted him with delicate affection and settled him down to sleep for the night. In the morning, before dawn, she woke him up to send him on his way home. As he rushed from the ruin, he shut the gate, locking her in, but he called back that he loved her and would return to free her.


Frédéric’s girlfriend finds his preoccupation sufficient to walk off in a huff. Frédéric asks guests about the picture, but no one knows the place it depicts. Frédéric appeals to his mother, who we recognise is the woman from the opening, and tries to explain the striking memory the photo evokes. The girl haunts him and, as he says, “I love her the way you love at twelve.” There are yawning holes in Frédéric’s childhood recollections, apparently caused by the traumatising death of his father. His mother impatiently, and a touch desperately, denies the event occurred. Frédéric is unconvinced, and gets a lead from another guest about a photographer who took the shot. This is the black-haired lady, who, when he visits her salon, is busy taking nude photos of a model (a quick-forward remote is advisable here, unless of course you dig it). The photographer tells Frédéric she was paid to keep the location of the ruin secret, but finds him sufficiently attractive (the advantages of coauthoring the script) that she promises to look up the location and meet him later, when she’ll be on a midnight photo shoot at the Paris Aquarium.


To waste time until the rendezvous, Frédéric goes to a movie theatre (showing what looks awfully like one of Rollin’s earlier films) and spies a familiar figure standing in the rear exit. Borrowing an usher’s flashlight, he sees it’s the girl of his memory before she disappears. He pursues her outside and sees her by the gates of Montmartre Cemetery. Bewildered but determined, Frédéric climbs the gate and follows her intermittent appearances until they lead him into the familiar crypt. Frédéric breaks open the coffins, and finds bats grotesquely entangled in shrouds. Frédéric runs off, and the bats turn into young vampire women—draped in see-through shrouds, natch—who look like bloodsucking, heroin-chic fashion models. Most striking are a pair of twins (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel), who begin stalking the rain-gleaming Parisian streets. Frédéric, unaware of this, encounters a tragic-looking woman wearing too much make-up,who claims to be the girl from the castle. But she’s only a paid decoy who lures him into a room and locks him up. He is freed by the twins, who have torn the woman’s throat out.


Frédéric arrives at the Aquarium, where he passes a suspicious man (who resembles a homicidal Ron Burgundy) and finds the photographer, murdered, in one of the displays. Frédéric pursues the assassin onto a metro train, where his quarry pulls a gun on him. Frédéric escapes from the train, jumps off an overpass, and is pursued. He is saved again by the vampires, who turn on a fountain, obscuring Frédéric from the assassin’s aim. Frédéric, distraught, goes to his mother for help, but she has him hauled away by the men in white coats. Frédéric is brought straitjacketed before a psychiatrist, who cheerfully proposes using shock treatment on him, but finds—in the film’s funniest pay-off—his two nurses are actually the vampire twins, and they kill the good doctor. Frédéric is free, but without hope of solving the mystery until the girl appears beside a blind postcard seller, pointing to one of the cards; it shows the chateau and its location.


Frédéric reaches the chateau, to find the vampire girls have congregated there. He penetrates the ruin and finds the belongings of the teenaged girl, and a sealed coffin, inside of which she lies with a pin in her heart. His mother appears and explains that the girl is his older sister, Jennifer. Made a vampire at the age of 16, she killed Frédéric’s father and created the other vampires, who terrorized the countryside. The mother staked Jennifer, but could not bring herself to behead her or the other girls, so they were all imprisoned. Her tolerance is at an end. Outside, her paid killers hunt down and stake the vampire girls, and she requests that Frédéric perform the coup-de-grace of beheading his sister to end the evil. As the bodies of the vampires are incinerated in a pit, Frédéric appears with a severed head—but it is actually from one of the girl’s dolls—that he throws in the fire. When his mother and the men have left, Frédéric removes the pin from Jennifer’s heart. She awakens and the pair celebrate their joyful reunion. She explains that though she was paralysed, she had learned to project her thoughts, which is how she could appear to him. After having sex on the beach, she turns him into a vampire, and they seal themselves in a coffin to drift on the sea to an island where they will live off shipwrecked sailors. This is a splendidly antisocial twist on the traditional imperative of the vampire story, particularly of stories like Le Fanu’s Carmilla, where the lesbian title character must be destroyed so the patriarchy remains unthreatened (and yet, Rollin comes closer than anyone else to capturing the nocturne tone of Le Fanu’s writing).


In a less imaginative film, the image of threatening female sexuality would be obliterated, and the man’s need to transgress, to break beyond the boundaries of society and memory dully punished or be retracted. Or worse yet, in the modern mould, the triumph of evil would be a facile punchline. Instead it’s an oddly idealistic finale, reminiscent of Pasolini’s principles. Frédéric blindly believes, from the beginning, that Jennifer’s lost, wounded, caring beauty is worth defying death, madness, and all social values, and remains true to this instinct to the end. Even as Jennifer’s vampire acolytes are murderous, the mother’s methods of keeping the secret safe, the disease trapped, are just as bad. The brutality of the standard vampire-killing–phallic penetration by staking–is highlighted by the forlorn sight of the twins, a stake having gone right through one into the other, sinking to death clutching each other like children. The news that Jennifer killed his father only seems to confirm that her chief crime was not vampirism, but up-ending the bourgeois family structure. The patriarchy was destroyed early, and their mother’s compensatory, viciously repressive matriarchy is finally outwitted. There is a sorrow to the finale as well as a liberation. Though Frédéric and Jennifer have found each other, death is death, no matter how animated.


Thematically interesting as Lèvres de Sang is, it exists entirely to justify Rollin’s creation of gorgeously weird images, and evocation of a rare, haunted mood. Few other films in the genre that approach its sonorus, alien poetry, oddities like Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) and John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971); only Fellini’s (1963) equals it for evoking how childhood recollections bleed into the present. Dotted through the film are memorable touches, essayed in what is, considering the film’s miniscule budget, obscenely pretty, silk-textured cinematography by Jean-François Robin. At the party, where a bunch of teenagers, flagrantly dressed down, dart between the evening-dressed guests and pinch food from the buffet. The tableaux vivant shots of the vampire girls around the chateau, semiclothed by wind-wafting silks. The hilarious-horrible flashback out of a BDSM comic where the vampire girls drag a nude, chained victim to their lair. The starkly nasty sight of the dead photographer, lying upside-down, bare-breasted and bloodless on water-washed rocks. The scenes where Frédéric pursues and is pursued by the assassin, which evoke Hitchcock, Lang, and Feuillade. Frédéric kissing the dollhead’s lips in the deathly chill of dawn, and his mother’s veiled face stony in triumph.


The finale offers a symphony of atavistic images as Jennifer invokes an orchestra in the sounds of nature, “conducted by a madman!”, before Frédéric and Jennifer entwine naked forms, white as driftwood. Jennifer stands atop the cliffs like the human equivalent of the Wicker Man, arms raised in a rite of primal nature worship. Frédéric lowers himself into the coffin and stops momentarily to study her fine but deathly still face, a moment laced with both an awed sense of beauty and also a queasy feeling of strange, necrophiliac desire: love as stasis, death as the only way to enact perfect desire. Their coffin, buffeted by the waves, brushes against the black ribs of a groin before finally floating out into the ship-ridden sea. Lèvres de Sang was a flop, satisfying neither horror buffs out for blood nor porn patrons, and it’s easy to see why. It’s actually an assertion of primal innocence and places both gore and sex at the disposal of its playful narrative. Rollin survived–just–and limped along under various pseudonyms before nearly recapturing some of his old intensity with Fascination (1979) and La Nuit des Traqueés (1980), both featuring Brigitte Lahaie who, later, added memorable erotic shape to Henry & June (1990). l