"My ideal: is a hollow dream;
My horizon--the unforeseen--
And my homesickness is extreme...
For a land I've never seen."
- excerpt from Paria by Tristan Corbiere
The Iron Rose is generally considered a lesser film of Jean Rollin, rarely mentioned in overviews of his oeuvre, even only given a few paragraphs in Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs' quintessential text Immoral Tales. When it premiered at the 2nd Convention of Cinema Fantastique in Paris, it went over notoriously poor; many walk outs happened barely after the film began, according to the aforementioned Immoral Tales. Despite it's poor reputation, La Rose de Fer is actually a very successful film, and deserves a second chance.
The film opens with a young woman standing on the beach. An iron rose washes onto shore and she picks it up, intensely staring at it, studying it. She then tosses the rose back into the ocean, and laughs.
Shortly after, a young man and the young woman catch sight of each other at a dinner party. During the dinner the man stands up and recites a poem that reflects upon the nature of love, staring at the young woman the entire time. After dinner the young woman approaches the man, and the two set a date to go for a bike ride on the upcoming Sunday.
The two agree to meet at an old railroad station, where they spend time running around and reveling in the innocence of young love; sneaking kisses and climbing on top of the no-longer-used trains. They then get on their bikes and go for a ride through the pastoral town. They end up in front of a large cemetary; the man wanting to go in to escape the noise of the city, and the woman slightly anxious. Eventually she agrees to go in.
The two explore the large cemetary and sit down for a snack. They feed each other chocolate and continue to sneak tiny kisses. Eventually the young man suggests they explore one of the crypts that is open. They descend the stairs into the crypt and end up making love. Once finished they realize dusk is falling and it is getting dark. The girl begins to get nervous, but the man is convinced they will have no trouble getting out.
As night continues to fall the two realize that they are lost in the giant cemetary, wandering around in circles, not making any progress. While continuing to search in vain, they begin suffering extreme emotions; paranoia, frustration, anxiety, anger. They remain lost, and as they slowly descend into madness, their reactions to each other become more and more polarized.
Rollin had a very simple concept when he initially imagined the film; he simply pictured a couple getting lost in a large place, and not having any sense of direction. Based on that idea he managed to craft an atmospheric piece of film poetry, reflecting on the nature of death and the nature of the living within its confines.
The primary cast consists of only two actors, the woman and the man, and the film explores their relationship and their ideals when forced into a dire situation. The acting, which for some reason a number of people have commented on being "terrible," is perfectly suitable for Rollin's universe; characters make seemingly random decisions that may not reflect the best decision to make in real life, but in the film it makes perfect sense. Francoise Pascal plays the role of the woman, and she shines in her innocence as she makes her way around the terrifying night.
The cinematography is also more dynamic than usual in a Rollin film, with one scene in particular standing out: As the man lays in an empty hole he fell into, the girl stares down from above, that camera spinning around each, one at a time, echoing a sense of desperate disorientation. At other times the camera carefully tracks the characters (a tracking shot is something rare in a Rollin film) as they chase one another in agony through the dim lights of the cemetery.
The most beautiful, rewarding part of the film falls at the end, as the young woman, in intense reverie, is found naked on the beach, commenting on the lives of the dead, as she knocks down grave posts while the waves crash around her. Pierre Raphs score explode, perfectly echoing the mental place the woman is in at the time.
In fact, Pierre Raphs score, used sparingly by Rollin throughout the film, is one of the most amazing things about the film. Immensely atmospheric and beautiful, while retaining a sense of longing, it adds an intense layer of feeling to the film whenever it appears on the soundtrack. But Rollin is not at fault for using it sparingly, in fact this helps the score, making it all the more powerful whenever it does show up, making each scene where it's presented more majestic than the last.
Another interesting thing about the soundtrack occurs during the brief scene at the old train station. Rollin uses incongruous sound; the trains around the young lovers are all stationary, but on the soundtrack one can hear the constant arrival and departure of trains. It's interesting to note this, as it's an idea that Alain Robbe-Grillet (who is generally regarded as far more intellectual than Rollin) was exploring at the exact same time. The result is the same thing Robbe-Grillet had discussed achieving; it echoes a sense of confusion and adds depth to the scene, which emphasizes the idea that the young lovers are in their own world.
In fact, the entire film seems geared to exploring the creation of a separate world for two people in love, a world inhabitated by nobody except the man and the woman, an eternal world that can be distracted by nothing.
The film might be a change of pace from viewers more accustomed to Rollins vampire and zombie epics, for there is virtually nothing flat out supernatural in this film, just a poetic telling of insanity and love. If you're not afraid of seeing something completely different, then maybe you should ignore what most critics have said and give the film a chance.