Jean Rollin was always after the idea of a personal cinema, but circumstance most often forced him into the confines of genre cinema. Luckily for Rollin, most genre tropes were congruent with his ideas about cinema, being utterly influence by le fantastique
and the serial films of Louis Feuillade. He is primarily known as a director of "erotic vampire films," and it is under this title that a majority of his films continue to be sold as.
The problem with this route, and the problem with the requirements Rollin often had to meet for his producers, is that Jean Rollin films are really not just "erotic vampire films." They are tried and true examples of the "personal, poetic" cinema that is rarely encountered outside of the film poems of the avant-garde from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. After a series of failures in attempting to get new projects off the ground in the mid-80s, Rollin made one of his most personal films yet, and, as Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill argue in Immoral Tales, "a final salute to his twenty five year struggle to find a place of his own inside the commercial film world."
The film came about when a producer asked Rollin to shoot some street scenes of New York for a film he was working on. Rollin agreed to go, and ended up shooting a small amount of footage with two actresses for a film of his own. The film it self is structured with these New York scenes at the core, within the frame of an elderly woman relating her tale of encountering a mysterious young girl as a child, the two of them escaping into the dream world of New York by way of a magical moon goddess statue and their love of each other.
The film is really remarkably sentimental, in a way that is both compulsively entertaining and remarkably honest. When the two girls first meet they end up in the rafters of an old barn, clutching the moon goddess and pouring over images in a book, their imaginations transporting themselves into the images. In a remarkable sequence, as the camera lingers over a vast array of images from the covers of old fantastique serial novels, the two girls throw themselves into both the images on screen, and, as the narrator tells us, into a veritable history of cinema itself, including everything from specific scenes in Citizen Kane to the empty unseen off screen areas of Rollin's own films. It's a remarkably intertextual and self-referential scene, the universe of the film exists both in the real world (signified by the declaration that these girls are finding themselves inside of FILMS), but also in the cinematic world (as they are actually in these filmic constructions); the reality of the two merge into one fantastic universe that is ripe for exploration.
Within the scenes shot in New York, Rollin reveals an utterly exploratory eye, the camera lingering up and down the tall city-scapes, the girls wandering through the classically adventurous locations of New York, skylines, China town, piers. This is yet another example of Rollin clashing the real world with the cinematic world into a single construct, the archetypal nature of Chinatown, with it's "lingering shadows of Fu Manchu" is nothing but a fictional construct, but the construct is forced into the literal location that the camera depicts.
The girls, the narration tells us, are playing a game of hide and seek in New York, spending their time searching for each other and encountering the spirits of the night, including a rather comatose vampire who one of the girls gladly opens her neckline to. Even the soundtrack helps to permeate the oneiric atmosphere, the heavy use of Casio keyboard voices both planting the film firmly in the late 80s while also perfectly emphasizing the sentimentality of the two girls.
The film is really built upon series of juxtapositions; Rollin's ever-beloved beach with the streets of New York, the cinematic world with the real world, timelessness and memory with a specific sense of time and longing, the young girls of the film's adventures and the two old women who reunite on the beach. It's a film that bears Jean Rollin's unmistakable mark, and it becomes clear, as he reveals himself through revisiting the themes that have come up again and again throughout his filmography, that this sentimentality that has always perked through the larger narratives of his career is really what's driving him. And his honesty is beautiful.
I have to wonder, however, how the film would be received by a viewer unfamiliar with the rest of Rollin's works. It's a point of discussion that I've had to encounter over the years as I become further and further engrossed into the filmographies of many of the directors that I hold dear to my heart (specifically Rollin, who we are discussing here, and Jess Franco, as well as many other directors that exemplify the Esotika "genre"). Like with the films of Jess Franco, a Rollin film becomes more and more accessible and understandable the more familiar you are with the director's entire body of work. Many of Rollin's themes that he addresses over and over again remain fairly obtuse and sometimes obscure without special attention paid, and the sentimentality is something that would undoubtedly seem remarkably out of place to a first time viewer.
It could possibly be argued that this reliance on context lessens the film, but to ignore the context of anything is a dangerous manner. I would argue that it is more responsible to view the films of both Jean Rollin and Jess Franco as part of a larger whole, their entire careers adding up to a single film experience that spans many decades. Of course, while it is obvious that the individual films become better within the context of the entire body of work, I still believe that films stand strong on their own; they are giddy, oneiric, personal films, and the resistance towards an easy, commercial reading makes the films far more worthwhile than a stereotypical piece of genre cinema.
Mike Kitchell, 2007