Editor’s note: The following is an exclusive excerpt from “’Castles of Subversion’ Continued: From the Roman Noir and Surrealism to Jean Rollin” by Virginie Sélavy. This essay is featured in “Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollins.” The book was published by Spectacular Optical, and is available now for purchase. To celebrate the book’s release, curator and editor Samm Deighan will be on hand to introduce a special screening of Rollin’s 1971 film “The Shiver of the Vampires” at the Brooklyn Horror Festival on October 14.
Usually deserted or abandoned, often in ruins or in a state of decay, sometimes captured just before demolition, always bearing the melancholy traces of human presence, locations are key to Jean Rollin’s cinema and often were the starting points for his films. Three in particular recur throughout his work: the famous Dieppe beach (specifically Pourville-sur-Mer), the cemetery, and the castle. The latter two are typical Gothic locations and an obvious choice of setting for Rollin’s favoured type of character, the vampire. The castle in particular dominates: out of the 20 feature films that Rollin directed under his own name, 12 feature castles (and that’s without counting the castles that appear in some of the pseudonymous films he made for the sex movie industry).
This is not a stylistic affectation, a random accident, or a question of simple decor preference. There is a fundamental connection between Rollin’s castle and its origin in the English Gothic novel of the 18th century—called roman noir by some French commentators, including Rollin and André Breton—such as Ann Radcliffe’s “The Italian, Or the Confessional of the Black Penitents” (1797), and the “castles of Udolpho and of the Pyrenees,” which Rollin evoked in his memoir “MoteurCoupez! Mémoires d’un cinéaste singulier”. In Rollin’s work, the castle is not merely a physical location, but delineates a similar kind of mental space to the one first mapped out in the roman noir and later claimed by the Surrealists, who vastly influenced Rollin’s artistic vision. In film after film, the director returned to the impenetrable mystery of the castle, and to the transgressive power of its ambivalences, moved by the same arcane forces that led kindred spirits before him to those fortified walls.
Castles in Rollin’s films come in all kinds of architectural styles, from the unnamed remains found near Clayes-Souilly in “Le viol du vampire” to the impressively tall 14th-century Donjon de Septmonts in “Le frisson des vampires” (“The Shiver of the Vampires,” 1970), and from the forbidding walls of the 12th-century Château-Gaillard in “Lèvres de sang” to the neoclassical Château Porgès of “La vampire nue” (“The Nude Vampire,” 1969). In each case, periods, designs, furnishings, and states of repair vary widely; for Rollin, the castle is a mental space, a symbolic construction that is not wedded to a specific form. “Lèvres de sang” makes this very clear: the castle first appears as a photograph, which brings up a memory, and the rest of the film is a quest for that mental image. Even when one of his films does not feature a physical castle, it can still be present in words: in “La rose de fer” (“The Iron Rose,” 1973), locked in a cemetery at night, the Girl (Françoise Pascal) eventually gives herself over to the world of the dead, dreamily evoking “the crystal castle.”
That Rollin’s castle is a mental space is also apparent in his construction of paradoxical, impossible geographies in which spaces sometimes permeate each other. In “Le viol du vampire,” a secret passage leads from the castle to the cliff on the Dieppe beach. In “La vampire nue,” the characters find themselves on the Dieppe beach after walking through stage curtains inside a castle, but even as they stand on the sand, the Master of the vampires (Michel Delahaye) tells them that they have not left the castle. “Perdues dans New York“ (“Lost in New York,” 1989) moves between the Brooklyn Bridge, Dieppe, and the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, expanding the temporal and spatial dislocation that Rollin learned from “Un chien andalou” (1929) and “L’âge d’or.”
The famous grandfather clock in “Le frisson des vampires,” inside which Isolde the vampire (Dominique) eerily appears, is a rich poetic image for that mysterious transfer between worlds, not unlike mirrors in Jean Cocteau’s “Orphée“ (1950). A mechanism built to mark the passage of time—that is, the movement between temporal dimensions—the antiquated clock, forever stuck at midnight, becomes in Rollin’s world a spatial and temporal portal. Reappearing in “La fiancée de Dracula” (“Dracula’s Fiancée,” 2002), the clock allows the vampire (Thomas Defossé) to pass between his world and his beloved’s (Cyrille Iste), finally materializing on the Dieppe beach, a magical space within a magical space.
However, the elaboration of an imaginary sphere does not mean that the castles’ physical reality is not important. Each castle gives the tale it hosts a specific atmosphere and presence. It is precisely the encounter between the construction existing in the world, shaped by the vagaries of history and personal accident, and the fictional tale it houses that creates the singular alchemy of each film.
Virginie Sélavy is the founder and editor of Electric Sheep, the online magazine for transgressive cinema. She has edited the collection of essays The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology, and has contributed to World Directory Cinema: Eastern Europe and written about Victorian London in Film Locations: Cities of the Imagination – London. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Sight&Sound, Rolling Stone France, Cineaste and Frieze.