Les Deux Orphelines Vampires
Feature by Gregory
It's autumn, and that means Halloween, where, for one night each year, all that is spooky and creepy is given its due. And Jean Rollin's new film, Les Deux Orphelines Vampires, should be playing at a theater near you, but it's not. More on that, later.
Rollin's name is usually linked with those group of directors whose work exists in the secondary strata of international scare films, and which includes the Spanish director Jess Franco, Italian directors Joe d'Amato and Lucio Fulci, and Polish director Walerian Borowcyk. Their films have usually had hit-and-miss distribution, at best, in the U.S., sometimes under oddball but attention-getting titles (Rollin's Requiem pour une Vampire found itself retitled Caged Virgins for U.S. release), yet were seen by, and made enough of an impression on, some people so as to have had a long afterlife on video.
Rollin is the only French director to have devoted himself to making (his preferred term) films of the fantastique. (Henri-George Clouzot and Georges Franju dabbled partly or only occasionally in the genre, while Alain Robak, after some promising work in the late Eighties and early Nineties, appears to have dropped right off the map.) He has been particularly drawn towards the world of vampires, sometimes with haunting, surprisingly empathetic results. His interest lies more in mystery than in shock, an atmosphere augmented by the fact that his young, pretty female characters are sometimes drawn towards -- gasp! -- lesbianism. and, back in the days before gay activism, when Rollin first started directing, lesbianism did have its element of mystery. Rollin's attitude towards the women in his films has strongly tended to be sympathetic, with scenes of aestheticized nudity, and, on the occasion when an exploitative element is introduced, usually at the behest of a producer to make the film more "saleable", Rollin accommodates with a perfunctory, "let's get this over with as quickly as possible" approach that takes off most, if not all, of the element of distaste and brutishness that would otherwise spoil our enjoyment of the picture.
In exchange for your occasional indulgence, Rollin's films offer a lot of pleasing surprises. Like another European director, Wim Wenders, Rollin's films usually revolve around a journey of some sort: a visit to a country chateau, a honeymoon trip to Italy, even a flight from the police. He is drawn to the sea, and the folkloric tales of thereof. (His first three films use the same beach setting, a stretch where the ribs of a ship's keel, long ago wreaked, emerge from the sand.) Instead of the usual baleful orchestral accompaniment, Rollin has used jazz accompaniments in his films, and, in Le Frisson du Vampire (The Thrill of a Vampire), allowed an electric rock band, Acanthus, to compose and perform the film's score (with fairly excellent results). The story for Requiem... was allegedly improvised from the opening image, a girl, wearing a Pierrot costume and makeup, shooting out the back window of a moving car. Rollin's films involve many indelible images: the Vampire Queen, in Le Viol du Vampire, being chauffeured around in her 1960s convertible automobile while reclining on tiger-skins in the back seat; a female vampire, in Frisson, emerging from a grandfather's clock; and the opening scene of Le Vampire Nue, where, in an all-white laboratory, the white-clad technicians disguise their identities by wearing red silk hoods while performing a test on a girl who is equally disguised in a green hood.
Which is why, watching Rollin's films, one gets the strong impression that here is an artist of poetic sensibilities who just happens to be working in the field of low-budget exploitation films. This is one aspect that sets him apart from the other directors with whom he is usually categorized: Franco, who seems to be trying to break some sort of speed record for the most number of films made, hastily leaping from one project to the next, occasionally coming up with something good along the way (most notably, The Awful Dr. Orlock, with its uncanny all-flute musical score); Joe d'Amato, whose attempts to shock and revulse would work better if you could see what was going on in front of the camera; and Lucio Fulci, whose films, despite a wide-spread and devoted following, have always seemed hopelessly derivative and uninspired while, at the same time, revealing sometimes appalling levels of self-loathing and disgust (which has been borne-out by some of the people who have worked with him). (I have only seen one picture by Borowcyk, and it was in such a heavily cut form that I cannot offer a fair assessment.)
Which brings up another thing, the fact that Rollin's films are accessible. They are much different, in feel and mood, from, say, the grimy, fermenting atmosphere one encounters in Fulci's The New York Ripper or House by the Cemetery, but, to be fair, in those films Fulci knows he's playing to a jaded audience who have come to see what atrocity is going to be dished-up next. Rollin's films convey the impression that he still believes, and has faith, in the magical qualities of motion pictures.
Rollin first came to feature filmmaking in an unusual way, making an hour-long film that was supposed to have been shown as an "extension" to the 1943 B-picture Dead Men Walk, at a Paris cinema in the late Sixties. A producer saw the footage and asked Rollin to lengthen his film by thirty minutes. The result became Le Viol du Vampire (which translates as Rape of the Vampire, though the title is figurative, not literal), a stylized, black-and-white thriller about a clinic where the characters seek to cure their vampirism. In Rollin's second picture, Le Vampire Nue, the young female vampire is a victim, not victimizer, held captive by three businessmen who want to isolate the quality that makes her eternally youthful. His third, Requiem pour une Vampire, concerns two young girls who become involved in a struggle between a domineering female vampire, who captures victims in an attempt to, literally, keep her family's aristocratic bloodline alive, and her husband, who opposes her and wants to let them, and their vampirism, die-out.
What has been mistaken, in some quarters, as inane or banal in Rollin's films is, upon more attentive examination, his interest in innocence, and enchantment. One of his most recent, and most beautiful, films, Perdus dans New York (Lost in New York), depicts an elderly woman recollecting how, in younger days, she and her young friend would project themselves across the ocean to New York City, where they would have adventures. The only problem: when they first arrive, they never arrive at the same spot together and thus must hurry across the unfamiliar urban terrain to find each other.
And then there are the "twins", the most oddly endearing of the recurring motifs in Rollin's films. (In Le Vampire Nue, they are servants, played by the twin actresses Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel; in Requiem, they are the ones fleeing, by car, in escape at the film's beginning.) Two women (usually young women), spiritually joined (if not by birth, then by station), making their way through the story's landscape, sometimes tenuously, always holding hands, like two children in a folktale walking through the darkest, most perilous and unpredictable part of the forest.
Deux Orphelines is something of a comeback for Rollin, after having spent some years in the wilderness. During that time, he wrote several novels of a fantastique nature (only one of which, alas, has been translated into English); worked on an abortive T.V. project ("Le Griffe de Horus"/"Mark of the Beast") and a film (La Femme Dangereuse/Killing Car) made partially on video and of which, he says, no "usable print" exists (it is listed on some bootleg video sites, though, so beware); and directed a couple of adult films (including the "Love Express" episode of the ubiquitous "Emmanuelle" TV series, which Cinemax aired in the U.S.), sometimes as a replacement for the original director. Of his work in this area, Rollin, in interviews, doesn't sound crazy about it, but is unapologetic. Or, as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson put it, when asked why he appeared in some projects that were of a demeaning nature, "I had to make a living." Deux Orphelines is Rollin's first vampire film in 13 years.
Louise (Alexandra Pic) and Henriette (Isabelle Teboul) are two beautiful young teenage girls who are first seen being given a cursory examination by Dr. Dennary (Bernard Charnade) at the orphans' home where they are tended by kindly nuns, who repeatedly refer to the girls as their little "angels" -- whether because of deed, or simply because they are blind, we aren't certain. The cause of their loss of sight is unknown: all the girls know is that, when they were children, the color simply "drained away" from their vision, until there was nothing. Dr. Dennary, with great benevolence, arranges to take them to Paris and have their sight corrected.
What nobody knows is that, when the sun sets, the girls' sight returns. They know it's night when the color blue comes back to their vision; they see everything in blue, an effect beautifully rendered by the film's cinematographer, Norbert Morfaing-Sintes. At night, Louise and Henriette slip out of the orphanage and romp across the countryside, like kids let-out from school.
The girls are also, as the title mentions, vampires, although not of the usual streak. They are more like eternal wanderers, with vague recollections of repeatedly coming to life in the past, living for a short time, then suffering a "mishap" and dying, only to rise again at another time and place.
The girls speculate about what their origins could have been. After finding a book on the Aztecs, they imagine that they first lived as Aztec gods, with servants who happily sacrificed followers, and even themselves, by the thousands, the blood running copiously. This makes them feel magnificent, omnipotent. (The film's only clue to their true origins comes when Rollin shows a partially-obscured marker in a cemetery -- Rollin loves cemeteries, which are like comfortably cluttered attics -- that appears to read, "ORPHELINA DES GLYCIN", the "a" denoting feminine gender. The orphans' home where the girls live at is named the "Orphelinate les Glycines".)
The girls are shown being precocious, impudent, malicious at times -- but they never come across as cruel or heinous. They acquire an oddly innocuous, but ingratiating, quality, as if they simply go through the world without any strong distinction between what's right or wrong.
But before we cozy up too much to them, Rollin reminds us that they are creatures who must kill to survive, whether it be a stray dog (whose unmourned body is buried by a gravedigger played by Rollin himself) or a woman whom they chase, and corner, in a carnival tent. (She is played, in a cameo, by Brigitte Lahaie, the statuesque French adult film star who successfully made the transition to mainstream dramatic roles in the Eighties, partially with the help of Rollin.)
Their status as outsiders in the world is further heightened by some of the characters they meet along the way. A stricken woman (Tina Aumont) reveals herself to be a ghoul, needing fresh cadavers to stay alive and, thus, wishing to be left alone by living people. Another woman (Nathalie Karsenty, who has a savage beauty and a flying mane of wild, dark hair) is a she-wolf, always on the alert for dogs who, once they sense her lupine presence, seek her out and attack her. (And she defiantly shows the marks on her body to prove it.) About as striking as this encounter is the girls' meeting, at the maze-like Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris (the resting place of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among others), with the regal "Woman of Midnight" (Veronique Djaouti), who has the form of an Erte figure and arms that turn into huge, leathery bat wings. She gives them temporary shelter in her secret chambers (where a copy of the Cathal Tohill and Peter Tombs book "Immoral Tales", which has a chapter on Rollin's films, is reverentially set-out), but tells them not to disturb her after sunrise and not> to stay around. "The Woman of Midnight's destiny is to pass over cemeteries in her own company, alone," she says.
Louise and Henriette don't seem to think much of Paris, and they tire of living with the doctor, so they try to return to the orphanage. But they haplessly reveal their true identities (they're caught admiring a particularly gruesome cover illustration for a vintage "Fantomas" novel), and they end up fleeing for their lives. The only time in the story where they make friends with anyone is when they alight on a country farm, where a girl (Anissa Berkani-Rohmer, who directed a short film that Rollin produced for her) who works there shows she isn't afraid of them and is, in fact, attracted by the magical qualities of being an extra-normal creature. It is to her whom the girls entrust their story and legacy, before finally disappearing. But, since Rollin is a compassionate director, he depicts their passing, not finite, but as if it were only temporary, a magician's illusion. Like in the films of Louis Feuillade, who turned the "Fantomas" novels into one of his marathon film serials, and with whom Rollin shares the ability to imbue ordinary objects and places with an extraordinary quality, the girls seem to slip through a trap door into a secret compartment or hidden passageway, from which they will eventually re-emerge, like one of the slinky criminals and pickpockets in Feuillade's playful, mysterious thrillers.
So: the film has form, style, beauty, an unusual and diverting story, two great-looking lead actresses, and a lush, moody music score by one of Rollin's longtime collaborators, Philippe d'Aram. So, why isn't this film in U.S. theaters? Well, Rollin's films may be regarded, by some, as an acquired taste, although some hardline cinema fans I know, who know of what they speak, consider the strengths in his films to far outweigh whatever may be seen as detriments. Rollin's films also are not big, splashy, whirring multi-million dollar spectacles: in look and feel, they are more akin to the "Nouvelle vague" films of Truffaut and Godard than those by Michael Bay and Joel Schumacher (although, given Bay and Schumacher's recent pictures, that may come as something of a relief), closer to Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses than John Carpenter's Vampires.
Actually, a lot has to do with money. It now costs, on average, about $20-million to publicize and release a motion picture in the U.S., outside of whatever it may have cost to make it. Considering the competitive nature of the movie business, with several new pictures appearing each weekend, jockeying for space on the arts and entertainment pages across America, along with the fact that foreign-language films are considered to be out-of-favor with the public (Deux Orphelines was made in French, and thus would need subtitling), and the fickle nature of audience taste, and you have more than enough factors to give pause to the pens that sign the checks. A distributor with a shrewd, tenacious and inventive release campaign, though, could give a Rollin film a chance to find its audience, even if it were through the "specialized venues" for foreign and independently-made films. (The same approach worked successfully with three equally unlikely films, Enchanted April and The Crying Game in 1992, and Il Postino (The Postman in 1994.)
Rollin will be 60 this year. Since completing Deux Orphelines, he has written a series of essays for a new book about his films (appropriately titled "Virgins and Vampires"). He has said that he likes to work with small crews, and is not into cost overruns, so there is conceivably a chance that we may see a few more new films from him. I would like to see him try a film adaptation of Andrei Codrescu's novel "The Blood Countess", or even something by that queen of the New Orleans night herself, Anne Rice.
Two Orphan Vampires is available, letterboxed and in English, from Graveside Entertainment, (904) 772-9042, or, http://www.graveside.com. Rollin's other films are available, letterboxed and subtitled, through Video Source of Miami, (888) 279-9773, or, http://www.vsom.com.
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