Monday, June 18, 2012

The Shiver of the Vampires

Jean Rollin's The Shiver of the Vampires is a wonderfully strange, clever piece of B-movie trash/art, a film that revels in its nakedly exploitative eroticism and lurid atmosphere. Set in the modern day, the film nevertheless swaddles most of its characters in clothes that evoke both old-fashioned fancy dress and hippie attire, which gives the film a very strange feel in terms of period, as though it's outside of time, somewhere that the modern era hasn't truly touched. Indeed, its foggy graveyards and crumbling, towering stone castles feel like remnants of an earlier time, and when the newlyweds Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) and Isle (Sandra Julien) first appear driving a car, it feels like a radical intrusion into the film's strange period vibe. It's a sublimely ridiculous movie that tweaks its voyeuristic perspective by having its hapless hero, Antoine suffer through a baffling sequence of encoded sexual humiliations at the hands of his beautiful new bride.

For some reason, Isle decides that the creepy old castle owned by her strange cousins (Jacques Robiolles and Michael Delahaye) is the perfect honeymoon destination. That's only the beginning of the couple's troubles, as Isle repeatedly pushes Antoine away, refusing to consummate their marriage. Isle, it turns out, is much more interested in the erotic pleasures offered by the emaciated vampiress Isolde (Dominique), who appears to the virginal bride by popping out of a grandfather clock or leaping dramatically out from the curtains behind Isle's bed — this is a vampire who really knows how to make an entrance. After one night with Isolde, the next night Isle again turns her husband away, banishing him from the bedroom, then excitedly strips down and goes looking for the vampire. When she doesn't find her undead lover, Isle embraces the clock instead, languidly wrapping her naked body around its cold wood, so like a coffin, as a stand-in for the chilly body of the lesbian vampire.

The film is devilishly clever in its examination of sexual frustration, as poor Antoine is continually blocked from access to his new bride, who apparently prefers a feminine touch. When Antoine spends his wedding night alone, while Isle is seduced by Isolde, he lays in bed with a large phallic torch hilariously standing in for his erection, angled up from between his legs. Later, the castle's two sexy sapphic servants (Marie-Pierre Castel and Kuelan Herce) stand over him and argue about which one of them will slip into bed with him; giggling, they decide they both will, but as soon as he wakes up, exaggeratedly rubbing his eyes as if convinced he's still dreaming, they jump out of bed and run naked and laughing out of the room, disappearing so quickly that he's convinced he might not have seen a thing. Meanwhile, the two fey vampire cousins have been having their way with a local girl, and gang up to rape the man-hating Isolde, while the servants writhe around naked in bed together: everyone but Antoine is getting some action, as he's left out of both the nocturnal supernatural conspiracy and the sexual games that accompany it.

Rollin's visual aesthetic renders this supernatural fantasy/nightmare in bright, unreal colors — the castle itself is often shown in cutaway shots where it's bathed in rainbow hues as though there are unseen spotlights shining up on it from the grounds — and shadowy, foggy haziness. The narrative is reduced to almost nothing: the newlyweds arrive at the castle, witness strange occurrences, wander through the moldy halls and decaying grounds, and Antoine occasionally makes half-hearted attempts to escape. It's a narrative perpetually suspended, and the whole thing has the texture of a dream, complete with its own loaded symbology. At one point, Antoine and Isle are strolling around the paths surrounding the castle, when Antoine abruptly shoots a dove. Isle, already transitioning into vampirism, is drawn to the dead bird and repeatedly brings it to her lips, finally resting its white body on the coffin of Isolde as an offering, bright red blood dripping over the wood.

This dreamlike film drifts along in this way, its images sensuous and erotically charged, really selling the draw of the undead, making the ease with which Isle is seduced away from her husband very understandable. There's a darkly comic vibe to the film, as well, particularly in the characters of the vampire cousins, who several times discourse in alternating lines on the history of their family, spouting pseudo-philosophical nonsense while trading lines, each one thrusting his head into the frame in turn. This film is a celebration of the surreal, the strange, the sexually polymorphous, as opposed to heteronormative marriage as represented, increasingly, by Antoine alone, without even his wife to support him. Even the servants, humans enslaved by the vampires, don't return to the normal, physical world after their joyful victory over the vampires: instead, in an extraordinary shot, Rollin holds a static view as the girls kiss and go dancing off in spiraling circles, disappearing into the darkness in the distance, their diaphanous gowns twirling around them, making them seem like spirits swallowed up by the night.

The climax is a showdown between Antoine and the vampire cousins, returning to the same bleak, apocalyptic beach that served as an otherdimensional realm at the end of Rollin's previous film, The Nude Vampire. Here, the beach, with the waves breaking against the rocky shore, serves as a grim backdrop for an anticlimactic conclusion in which Isle makes her choice and Antoine must watch as his wife engages in a suicidal, incestuous menage a trois with her cousins, while all he can do is impotently fire his pistol in the air, having no effect on these supernatural beings. The allure of the grave and of death ultimately wins out over the possibility of normality, marriage, a return to the ordinary world. Those things no longer hold any appeal for Isle; Antoine is the film's sole representative of normality, which is why in the end he's left alone and unfulfilled, shut out of the sensual, appealingly weird world of death and undeath. It's a neat trick that Rollin pulls off here: although humanity technically wins in the end, it's obvious that gay vampires just have so much more fun.


Anonymous said...

This is timely, since I just watched this myself last night. Rollin is turning into my top discovery of 2012; I'd heard of him but not seen anything by him (except Phantasmes) until this year. The Kino Lorber discs have been a godsend.

Ed Howard said...

James, he's been a great recent discovery for me as well. I'd always heard a lot about him but never checked him out until this year. Now he's a favorite. He's a really distinctive and fascinating talent.