Wednesday, September 1, 2010

LA ROSE DE FER (1973) - a rose by any other name would rot and fade away

Here is the original French theatrical poster. It's pretty simple, but still way better than the floating head bullshit we get out of Hollywood these days.

I think my initial exposure to the films of Jean Rollin was a viewing of Requiem For a Vampire, the old U.S. Redemption DVD release. Considering the misleading cover, I was expecting something along the lines of one of the Jess Franco vampire films (like Vampyros Lesbos), but got something entirely different. I was immediately entranced by this nearly wordless fairy tale, taking place in and around a crumbling French castle, in a tangible world both darkly mysterious and beautifully decrepit; a fantasy of the earth. While not at all what I expected, I was instantly hooked, and sought out all of the films of his that I could find. Rollin’s films are often equated in terms of their sex and horror elements, as leisurely paced genre efforts, but I think this is a case of a director who works inside of a genre (the Euro sex/horror film) in order to do something of his own making, only containing several surface elements of what is normally expected of these kinds of films. La Rose de Fer (The Iron Rose) is seemingly free of any genre constraints (except for maybe a little nudity), and, for me, represents the purest expression of what makes Jean Rollin such a unique filmmaker.

Jean Rollin’s cinema is, in the most general terms, a poetry of image. In this definition, a “poet” uses words to express the raw reality of both man’s position within the universe and his relation to others. A storyteller, on the other hand, uses words to express a world already filtered through thought and language; a character in a place with a goal. A “poet of cinema” presents this raw reality with an unadorned camera eye, either with human beings positioned within this world, or as a direct point of view for the audience (a film like Baraka might qualify for the latter). A viewer may regard a film like this to be slow and lacking in plot, but this approach is about stripping away narrative in order to create something more physical than literary.

“In this language of images, one must lose completely the notion of image. The images must exclude the idea of image.”
-Robert Bresson

One such director who best conveys this idea of cinematic poetry is Robert Bresson. His cinema is one of getting at the physical essence of a story through cinematography, attempting to remove the distance between audience and image that is built from language and narrative structure. When watching the donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar, the unadorned physical presence of the animal, over the course of the running time, takes precedent over it's narrative function. That is, where did the donkey come from, where is it going, why are people treating it the way they do, why give a donkey a starring role in a film, etc. Here is a director that wants you to see things for what they are, and not as part of some extrinsic structural purpose.

I sorta look at Jean Rollin as a director who uses this Bresson-esque poetry of images to present a world of sensual decay, the crumbling remnants of man haunting those living wanderers who happen upon them. Withered headstones and crumbling statues haunt with the ghosts of humans past; the faint pall of dreams, desires and love from lives since decayed. To this, he adds surrealist fairy tale horror elements; mythical creatures (often vampires) and symbols and such. The result is a dreamlike discord between two worlds that normally don’t find themselves colliding.

Look no further than the opening scene of La Rose de Fer, where Francoise Pascal walks along a beach. She sensually takes in the natural physicality of it all, but finds a mysterious iron rose that has washed ashore, coal black and worn. Where did this come from? She finds it beautiful, holding it up and caressing it, but it also seems to reek of death. She throws it back into the sea and continues along the shore and out of frame.

This opening scene represents, for me, a wonderful distillation of Jean Rollin’s cinema. Here we have a reoccurring location (Rollin’s favorite beach, which pops up in many of his films), and a character in a trance like enchantment of it’s tangible beauty. She finds a symbol both poetic and decayed lying amidst this ephemeral portrait of nature. This scene is also a dream, a mystery that haunts the character throughout the film.

“Dying while he was sleeping, he experienced a dream. His dream was the wave, that would climb up the beach. The wave that descends. Your eyes in these eyes. Your lips on these lips. It is to you I would like to say farewell to life. You who will cry for me until I am in the mood to cry for myself.”

She notices a young poet at some sort of get together, and he recites the above poem while looking into her eyes. They quickly fall in love, playfully chasing each other in and around an old train. The contrasting primary colors of their clothing (red and yellow, respectively) cause them to stick out amongst these remnants of industrial society. They ride their bikes to a graveyard and enter, deciding to explore and have a picnic. The couple then make love in an underground tomb, but when they exit to the surface, they find that darkness has already descended, and fear sets in as they become lost trying to find their way out.

At this point, the film becomes a two person play, tragedy from within, as they become engulfed by this graveyard over the course of a night. He tries to impose his strength and logic on the situation, scoffing at the idea that these graves are sacred, that these people are in a better place. She, on the other hand, ascribes meaning and respect to these graves, and remains haunted by the vision of the rose as she becomes paralyzed with fear.

Inevitably, she actually finds an iron rose, the same as in her dream, and this sets off something within her. This eventually inspires her to recite her own poem, coming forth as if a spirit was speaking through her, an answer to the earlier poem that initially awakened this romance within her. His poem seemed to her to be a reflection of the dream, and, resultingly, fatefully pointed her to a brief love affair, the likes of which she had never felt. As this “spirit” world engulfs her, her poem and resultant actions become, in a crumbling mind, a fulfillment of this dream; a final response to this beautiful poem she sought, not just to listen to, but to physically explore.

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