Monday, December 17, 2012

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Les Demoniaques

Against a backdrop of flames brightening a shoreline by night, their faces superimposed as if in oval picture frames, Jean Rollin introduces us to the dramatis personae of ‘Les Demoniaques’. It would be appallingly cutesy if the flames weren’t the burning wreck of a ship and the characters in question a villainous bunch of wreckers. Meet the Captain (John Rico):


And meet the Captain’s lady, Tina (Joelle Coeur) – although “lady” might be pushing it a bit:



Rounding out this crude and cruel crew are Bosco (Willy Braque) and Paul (Paul Bisciglia). Voiceover sketches in a power struggle between the Captain and Bosco while casting aspersions on Paul’s loyalty. Quite to what purpose I have no idea, since none of this is ever revisited.

The story – I’m using the word loosely since, as ever in the Rollin filmography, narrative counts for sweet f.a. – starts on that same dark shoreline as the wreckers haul some washed-up chests onto the beach and go through their contents. There’s no glimpse of a sinking ship, but then again budgets aren’t a staple of Rollin’s work either. Everything’s going swimmingly (drowningly?) and the Captain’s trading off some jewelry for sexual favours from Tina …


… when the night is pierced by cries for help, and out of the sea come two orphan girls. Anyone with Jean Rollin scorecard in front of them can tick off “beach” and “two orphan girls” immediately and get their pen ready for “gratuitous nudity” and “ridiculously protracted sex scene” in just a minute. Anyway, these two waifs (they’re not named, spend the virtually the whole film mute, and it’s chiefly thanks to IMDb that I can identify them as being played by Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier) don’t get any help from the wreckers whatsoever. Quite the contrary. They’re raped and left for dead, an ordeal that get’s Tina so hot under the collar that she peels off her duds, dances naked on a promontory and has awkward looking sex with the Captain on a rock.


This venal business occupies almost twenty minutes. Then we cut to a tavern at which El Captaino and his less-than-merry bunch are drinking, carousing with saloon girls, and generally blowing their ill-gotten gains. Louise (Louise Dhour), the madame of this establishment, baits the Captain with knowledge of his activities. He denies being a wrecker, but starts experiencing hallucinations of the dead girls.



Louise has the gift of second sight and intuits that something preternatural is going to happen. Eventually – and I do mean eventually: the tavern sequence drags on almost as long as the first scene – a terrified local runs in and announces that the dead are walking the streets. Guessing that what he’s seen is the pale and injured orphans who weren’t quite as left-for-dead as they thought, the wreckers set out to hunt them down and finish the job.

After a tense bit of cat and mouse amongst the wrecks of old ships that line the beach (easily the film’s best sequence, Rollin’s camera painting with shadows), the girls escape to some ruins on the outskirts of town which are said to be haunted; the reputation is enough to dissuade the Captain from pursuing, even though Tina, crazed with bloodlust, is well up for tackling the girls on her own.

We’re at the halfway mark now and ‘Les Demoniaques’ is about to go full-tilt into WTF territory. Still got that Jean Rollin scorecard handy? We’re about to tick off “ruined abbey”, “dark ritual (involving nudity)” and “outright surrealism”. The girls arrive at the ruins where they’re met by a strange woman dressed as a clown (Mireille Dargent) …


… who seems to live at the abbey with a guy who dresses a priest (albeit a somewhat new age-y one) and another guy who’s locked in a cell (the ruins are barely standing, but hey there’s perfectly secure cell) and can only be freed, apparently, by someone coming to him of their own accord. It seems to help if said someone is female. And naked. IMDb pegs these gentlemen as, respectively, the exorcist (Ben Zimet) and the devil (Miletic Zivomir). Specious descriptions at best.

The girls, seeking vengeance, agree to a ritual in which the devil transfers his powers to them. This involves having sex among the ruins …


… and only lasts till dawn. The powers, that is, not the sex. Although the devil probably has the stamina for it. Anyway, the girls make a right hash of their revenge and as dawn approaches the wreckers, unaware that they are soon to meet their own fate, have one last but extremely nasty surprise left in store for them.

As the 800 odd words above indicate, ‘Les Demoniaques’ has more of a plot than your average Rollin film, and the imagery (for the most part) works in the service of said plot. As opposed to many other Rollin films where ethereal women – often vampires, mostly naked – wander round old houses and other women (unclothed, natch) pop out of grandfather clocks and there’s generally no reason for any of it beyond (a) it looks cool and (b) it pads out the running time. Not that ‘Les Demoniaques’ doesn’t have its longueurs, certainly in the first half.

Nonetheless, this lip service to storytelling makes this one of the most entertaining of Rollin’s output, despite the grim commitment to being resolutely downbeat that characterizes the last twenty minutes or so. As ever, atmosphere is everything and there are some genuinely haunting moments. Also as is Rollin’s wont, these moments sit cheek-by-jowl with rampant what-the-fuckery. And that’s what makes his work infinitely watchable. That and the naked ladies.

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