After the soul-destroying experience of ‘Bulletface’ I was giving careful thought to my choices for the penultimate day of Winter of Discontent when I heard, belatedly, that Jean Rollin passed away last week. I’d seen ‘Requiem for a Vampire’ years ago while severely under the influence and had never quite managed to separate out how much of the general fucked-up-ness of it was Rollin’s doing and how much owed to the various substances floating around in my endocrine system. I’m sure I’ve seen a couple of others, but they get confused in my mind with ‘Requiem for a Vampire’. I can only be sure of castles, fields, topless women emerging from grandfather clocks and candlelit rituals.
Apart from these misremembered images, and what I’d read about his work on various blogs, my knowledge of the Rollin oeuvre was sketchy at best. And all I knew of ‘Fascination’ – tonight’s slice of the bizarre – was that it boasted this iconic image:
… and promised this kind of behaviour:
Either of which would have provided justification enough for watching it. What I didn’t expect was for Rollin’s direction to be so sanguine and his visuals so starkly poetic. I may be going out on a limb here (either that, or I really need to stop watching movies stupidly late at night with a bottle of Bargain Booze’s finest inside me) but ‘Fascination’ is kind of what you’d get if Werner Herzog, halfway through shooting ‘Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht’, decided to replace Klaus Kinski with Brigitte Lahaie and shoot a couple of girl-girl scenes.
Okay, turn the outrage up to eleven. Clog the comments section with vehemence. Spark up those burning torches. I’m kind of outraged at myself for even thinking of invoking Herzog’s name in a Jean Rollin review let alone typing it up and posting it on the blogosphere for all to see. And to be perfectly honest, I’m still having some difficulty rationalizing it.
But I can’t shake the feeling that a touch of Herzog hovers over some – only some, mind you – of ‘Fascination’. It’s in the extended takes, the languorous pacing, the sense of otherworldliness in the visuals. The use of found locations that look like the director found them on another planet:
The differences, however, are just as distinct. The characters are paper-thin whereas Herzog’s are enigmatic and memorable. The mysterious and compelling spectacle of nature so probingly explored by Herzog are replaced in ‘Fascination’ by a probing exploration of the mysterious and compelling spectacle of female nudity. The driven, doomed and often maniacal anti-heroes of Herzog’s highest drama – the Kinskis and Cages and Bruno S’s – are notable only by their absence; Rollin’s protagonist is a ponce in a natty red jacket.
The less said about this individual the better. In fact, the less said about most of the cast … well, you get the picture. Let’s just say that Brigitte Lahaie – a woman whose filmography mainly consists of knuckle-shuffle fare (both soft and hard) and the occasional mainstream title such as ‘Henry and June’ – delivers the only real acting chops on display.
The plot is marginal: a bandit rips off his cohorts, goes on the lam and ends up at a castle occupied by two strange and seductive women who tease, tantalize and take the piss out of him in roughly equal measures; while he hides out, waiting for nightfall and the chance to make his getaway, they await the arrival of some equally strange and seductive guests. Nonetheless, Rollin quickly establishes a pressure-cooker atmosphere of sexual power games and troilism reminiscent of early Polanksi (think ‘Knife in the Water’ but with soft-focus lesbian scenes). Also, he keeps the threat/promise of what the guests are converging for bubbling away in the background; an effective, simmering tension.
‘Fascination’ is aptly titled. It occupies an intriguing middle ground between art and exploitation. Between a genuine aesthetic imperative and a commercial awareness of low-brow panderings. Between extended takes that Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr would give the thumbs up to and copious nudity that dirty old men would have a hand-shandy over. The fascination of ‘Fascination’ is that it never comes down in favour of one over the other. It holds its dichotomies in dreamy equilibrium. Exists on its own terms.
Let me repeat: I’m still having some difficulty rationalizing it. But one thing I know: I need to see more Rollin.