The psychedelic filmscape of French director Jean Rollin is populated with vampires, virgins, and mad doctors that convey a symbolism deeper than their pulp horror roots might suggest. His movies vacillate between exploitation madness and artistic suggestion, making it difficult to categorize them. Where does Rollin belong in the cult canon, and where is his impact felt today?
At a glance, Rollin shares characteristics with some of his French arthouse contemporaries. His obsessive use of symbols evokes Alain Robbe-Grillet, but Rollin’s dream-state fantasy isn’t created with the same intent as Robbe-Grillet’s philosophical and meticulous manipulation of story form. In spite of directing movies with exploitation-friendly titles like Glissements progressifs du plaisir (Successive Slidings of Pleasure, 1974), Robbe-Grillet takes an icy, detached perspective to his erotic and violent imagery. While it’s certainly intended to provoke, it’s not meant to titillate in the same way as Rollin’s sexy horrors. There is also an emphasis on human emotion in Rollin (poignancy and even playfulness) that isn’t at the forefront in Robbe-Grillet’s work.
Similarly, Walerian Borowczyk crafted a number of historical-set erotic pieces, some of which border on the fantastical. The Beast (1975), Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981), and the Countess Bathory segment of Immoral Tales (1974) qualify as dark fantasies, but Borowczyk works in the world of allegory. Rollin’s films don’t carry the sting of indictment against repressive sexuality that is such a crucial thread through Borowczyk’s work.
Rollin’s films have a closer relationship to the films of Georges Franju and Luis Buñuel, directors that worked in the Surrealist mode. These directors focused their attention on committing unforgettable images to film–images that are frequently borrowed from the world of horror. Buñuel’s eyeball razoring in Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the surgical nightmares of Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (1960) were intended to evoke emotional responses from the audience. The use of pulp imagery is as important to Buñuel and Franju as it is to Rollin. In fact, Franju would go on to direct an adaptation of Fantômas director Louis Feuillade’s pulp serial Judex (1916) in 1963.
This cross-pollination of Surrealism and pulp fiction is a defining feature of Jean Rollin’s work. It’s important to note that Andre Breton’s 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto” name-drops the infamous 18th century shock novel The Monk as a source of inspiration for would-be adherents to the art movement. Residing at the extreme end of the Surrealist pulp symbolism spectrum is French painter Clovis Trouille, who was dubbed a member of the movement by Breton himself. Trouille’s paintings are collage-like in structure, plucking elements from nudie magazines, film posters, and horror movies and placing them together in complex, colorful compositions. Naughty nuns, sexy mummies, and 18th Century aristocrats attend elaborate funerals or lounge on multi-hued desert dunes. It’s a suggestive, tongue-in-cheek form of Surrealism that invites viewers to create bizarre narratives. Not only is the nature of Rollin’s choice of images close to Trouille’s, the director structures his movies in a similar fashion, crowding his movies with dreamy horror iconography. Rollin has specifically cited the influence of Trouille’s paintings on his work alongside that of other Surrealist painters working in a figurative style.
Given Rollin’s collage-like method of structuring his films, it’s noteworthy that he wrote a psychedelic, erotic graphic novel titled Saga de Xam. This 1967 effort, illustrated by Nicholas Devil, predates Rollin’s first film but employs story elements and images plucked from similar pulpy sources.
The popularity of Jean Rollin’s films has increased tremendously over the past decade. Gone are the days of seeking out grainy VHS copies-of-copies; viewers today can stream pristine prints of his work on easily accessible platforms like Netflix. Attracted to Rollin’s seemingly discordant artistic approach to exploitation themes, a new generation of artists has found inspiration in his filmmaking style. Audio artist Mater Suspiria Vision and frequent video art collaborator Cosmotropia de Xam have re-worked soundtrack elements and imagery from Rollin’s films into witchhouse trippiness, including their Grapes of Death offering (pulling its title and components from Rollin’s 1978 film of the same name) released on 2010’s Zombie Rave 4 compilation.
It’s fitting that artists working in the comics medium are drawing inspiration from Rollin’s collage story and visual structures. Sarah Horrocks takes a distinctly Rollin-esque approach to blending pop imagery with a deeply personal point of view. Horrocks has reimagined images from Rollin’s films using her energetic linework and eye-popping color palette, and often uses distinctly Rollin-esque narrative styles to talk about topics as diverse as drone warfare, Kanye West, and unflinching autobiography.
Katie Skelly has created My Pretty Vampire, a pop surrealist fantasy that could easily be set in Rollin’s universe. Her wandering nymphette floats through colonnades and desolate highways with a feisty, cool-girl attitude that blends Rollin’s Gallic imagery with a distinctly American point of view.
Five years after his death, Jean Rollin’s unique body of work continues to be reassessed. Movies that formerly existed in a hinterland between art cinema and horror fandom are being embraced by fans who have grown up accepting sampling and collage as legitimate forms of art. Instead of alienating genre purists, Rollin’s films are now seducing the willing with their heady aura of eroticism, bloodshed, and melancholy.
Check out our article on the symbolism unique to Jean Rollin’s psychedelic worlds here.