Saturday, January 28, 2012

On Blu-ray: FASCINATION (1979)

(France - 1979)

Written and directed by Jean Rollin.  Cast: Franka Mai, Brigitte Lahaie, Jean-Marie Lemaire. (Unrated, 82 mins)

I guess I should start by confessing that this is my first "real" exposure to Jean Rollin.  Of course, I've been aware of him for the last 20 years, but from everything I read, I always more or less wrote him off as a French Jess Franco, probably because of his involvement in the awful ZOMBIE LAKE (1981), which Franco wrote and Rollin directed under the name "J.A. Laser."  And outside of a few films, I've never understood the cult of Jess Franco.  When he had a budget, usually supplied by Harry Alan Towers in the late 1960s, Franco made some decent films.  I'd even say 1969's VENUS IN FURS is his masterpiece.  But other than that, and a few occasionally watchable films later on (1981's BLOODY MOON, 1987's FACELESS), I just don't get Franco's appeal to cult movie fans.  On his many DVD releases over the years, Franco seems like a nice guy and is a hell of a raconteur, but as a filmmaker, it's a triumph if he's got the camera pointed in the right direction and it's actually in focus.

Brigitte Lahaie and Franka Mai

But I digress.  My point is that because of his one-time association with Franco, I think I often disregarded the accolades Rollin received (plus, while Franco merely dabbled in porn in 1980s, most of Rollin's career was spent directing hardcore porn under a pseudonym, which supplied the money to make his more personal, serious horror films).  But there's been a strange turn of events recently:  a Rollin film (1973's THE IRON ROSE) actually played on Turner Classic Movies.  And the prestigious Kino Lorber acquired the rights to Rollin's horror films via Redemption and has just released the first batch in deluxe Blu-ray and DVD editions (in addition to FASCINATION and THE IRON ROSE,  the initial wave includes 1970's THE NUDE VAMPIRE, 1971's THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, and 1975's LIPS OF BLOOD).  And just a few days ago, there was a story on the Rollin Blu-ray releases in the New York Times.  In short, it was time for me to stop being a dismissive dick and see what Rollin was all about.

1979's FASCINATION is generally regarded as the Rollin film to see if you're only going to watch one or want to get your feet wet.  It has the trademark Rollin touches--vampires, erotica, surreal, poetic imagery--with an added bonus of relative coherence, which wasn't always one of his primary concerns (Rollin died in 2010).  After opening with a scene of aristocrats drinking ox blood as a cure for anemia, the story settles on thief Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) making off with some gold coins as his cohorts chase him.  He hides in a desolate chateau nearby, where everyone is gone except for two bisexual chambermaids, Elisabeth (Franka Mai) and Eva (Brigitte Lahaie).  The chambermaids are waiting for the chateau's Marchioness and her servants.  Eva falls in love with Marc, much to the jealous disapproval of Elisabeth.  Eva tells Marc he has to leave before midnight when the Marchioness and the servants will arrive...

Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) has no idea what he's gotten himself into.

Watching this film--and I don't know if anyone has said this before, but I imagine they have--Rollin struck me as everything people say Franco is but isn't.  For starters, this is a much better-made, more polished and professional-looking film than anything Franco has ever done.  Rollin works wonders with a small budget, shooting in actual locations and using a lot of natural lighting.  Unforgettable imagery abounds:  the abbatoir in the opening scene, the path to the chateau, the eventual appearance of the Marchioness, and pretty much every scene involving Lahaie.  An actress who moved between legit films and hardcore porn under a variety of different names, Lahaie was a fixture in most of Rollin's films and a couple ones later on for Franco, but FASCINATION is her finest work.  The image of Lahaie and the scythe have become part of European horror iconography, and the whole sequence where Eva stalks and kills Marc's vengeful associates is unforgettable.  I mean, seriously, does imagery get any more effective than this?

Brigitte Lahaie cements her place in horror film history

Lahaie is hypnotically beautiful in this.  Stunning.  And Rollin knows it.  When she's on camera, you can't take your eyes off of her.  Short on standard scares but long on style and pure visual, cinematic artistry, FASCINATION, like all of Rollin's work, is a hard film to describe, which may be a reason I avoided it and Rollin for so long.  But this is an oversight that will be remedied soon.  Budget limitations and occasional clumsy editing aside, FASCINATION is, in its own way and with its dreamy, melancholy aura, a film as beautiful and spellbinding as Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.   So believe the hype.  There's clearly a Rollin renaissance going on right now, and I wish I'd been onboard sooner.


  1. Just watched the whole DVD---loved the Rollin UK TV interview. And yeah--Brigitte Lahaie is one of the most beautiful women ever.

  2. She's beautiful and so is the film. Thanks for reading, Nick!