Monique Natan, whose Les Films Modernes had produced Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampire (1971), was apparently keen to work with the director again prior to her untimely passing in an automobile accident. In the event, it was Lionel Wallman – who had worked for her in sales capacity – who initiated the next feature, which Rollin agreed to turn around in a four-week period. Writing thus began almost immediately and without a particular premise in mind, the only firm idea being that his friend Louise Dhour should appear playing a grand piano in a cemetery. That aside, ‘Virgins and Vampires’ was apparently written spontaneously, without any pre-planning or conscious reflection. Inspired by the storytelling methods he had witnessed as a child, Rollin laid out one scene after another as the ideas came to him, in a fashion he subsequently described as automatic writing. The result plays out like a fairytale in which two unsuspecting girls encounter a monster in a land faraway.
Requiem for a Vampire (1973), as it was retitled for release, begins with two girls dressed as clowns hurtling through the French countryside, exchanging gunfire with the vehicle pursuing them. They manage to evade their would-be assailants by pulling off the main road, but not before their driver is hit. Abandoning both the driver and the car – indeed, setting fire to both the driver and the car – they set off on foot as the titles roll.
“Why this bloody and murderous existence?”
Watching it again for the first time in a number of years, it seems to me that Rollin’s fourth feature can be sensibly divided into two halves. In the first, our two miniskirted protagonists (the clown costumes come and go) make their way across the countryside with no obvious destination or objective in mind. They happen across a cemetery and ultimately a castle, which appears to be abandoned. Actually, it is the home of an ailing vampire and his acolytes, and it is their story as much as the girls’ which drives the second half of the film.
If we accept this notional division, one of the key characteristics of the first half is that it’s almost entirely devoid of dialogue. Two workmen have a brief conversation which is of no particular significance, but the girls themselves – petite, pigtailed, one blonde the other brunette – seem to have no need or use for verbal communication. As viewers this means we have no information as to who they are, where they’re going or why they were under fire, we are simply witness to their journey and the effect borders on hypnotic. This is partly due to the deliberate pacing – one could argue that very little happens in this section – and partly due to the characteristic images Rollin conjures, images of bats, of a cemetery, of a person being buried alive. Indeed when the girls eventually arrive at the castle, they appear to be in a trance themselves, presumably the result of the aforementioned bats feeding at their necks.
The more tangible elements of the narrative – certainly the more dramatic elements of the narrative – really begin at this point, with the girls encountering and becoming captive to the vampire and his cronies. Unfortunately, I think the film loses some of its charm here, some of its uniqueness, as the enigma of the protagonists and their journey gives way to the clarity of the antagonists and their quest.
Unable to escape – in true fairytale fashion, all roads lead back to the castle – the girls are tasked with luring in local men so that the group can feast on their blood. They set about the task individually, which is to the detriment of the film as a whole. For a start, it breaks the invisible bond which has bound them thus far, and it doesn’t play to their strengths as actresses either. They are quite compelling as a pair, but neither have the presence of a Sandra Julien or Brigitte Lahaie, and it’s very obvious when they’re apart.
The introduction of a farcical note is also a problem here, as it tends to undermine the mood that has been established to that point. Michelle (Mireille D’Argent) approaches the task by stripping naked atop one of the castle walls, after which she is chased around its grounds by an unidentified, entirely disposable passerby (Paul Bisciglia). The scene is playful, filled with laughter and perfectly competent in its execution. It’s rather jarring in its tone though, coming after the surrealism of the first act and before the sadness of the last.
The nudity doesn’t help either, given the ‘girls’ – who were both in their twenties at the time of shooting – are visually coded to exaggerate their youth, with pigtails, short skirts and knee high socks. They are also physically quite small – in fact they’re dwarfed by the other cast members – which further problematises the expression and depiction of their sexuality. Of course, the fantasy of the naughty schoolgirl – which is not quite what we’re seeing in this scene, but it’s close – persists to this day. The sight of a paunchy, middle-aged man pursuing and pawing a tiny, near-naked young woman is probably the least appealing of the film though.
“You cannot be both Virgin and vampire.”
Far less compliant, Marie (Marie-Pierre Castel) chooses to sacrifice her virginity and enrage her captors in so doing. It’s never really made clear how this diminishes her value to the vampire, though I suspect it has something to do with the likelihood of her transforming as a result of his bite(s). Some years later, Paul Morrissey would build his Blood for Dracula (1974) around the idea that the blood of non-virgins is noxious to the vampire, though there’s no suggestion that is the case here. Either way, Marie’s act of intimacy is brilliantly rendered with an extended, static close-up of her face, shot from behind as she lays supine.
Separating the aforementioned halves is a lengthy, red-lit, forced sex scene in which the vampire’s henchmen indulge their carnal desires with anonymous, chained women. This was apparently included at the behest of financiers – which may explain the $am $elskey producer’s credit – and is far removed from the surrounding footage, to the point that it could almost have been inserted from another film. It’s not as jarring to me as the comedy though, perhaps because the infernal lighting and pounding rock score convey a nightmare quality which contrasts with preceding footage rather than undermining it.
The tonal shifts – likely the result of the writing process as much as commercial pressures – do undermine the spell the film might otherwise weave. It’s a visual treat throughout though – in fact it’s frequently quite beautiful to look at. Jean-Jacques Renon was unavailable this time around, so Renan Polles served as cinematographer and brilliantly realises both the atmospheric locations and Rollin’s bizarre, somewhat fetishtic imagery: our pigtailed protagonists creep around the castle clutching handguns, skeletons in monastic robes stand around an alter and, perhaps most striking of all, the girls’ initiation ceremony begins with one the vampire’s followers playing piano in a cemetery at night, with them sat on either side.
One wonders if Rollin was feeling more comfortable with himself as a filmmaker by 1973, because while the themes remain much the same, Requiem is much more temperate than its predecessors in terms of camera placement and movement. There is no circling of interlocutors here, instead we have stately, long shots of the French countryside and striking overheads, presumably shot from the upper reaches of the castle itself.
Of course, there are still grounds for those inclined to accuse him of amateurism – the blank, non-performances and continuity errors, for a start – but the former seems to be part of the aesthetic by this point, whether or not that was by design. It is not entirely incongruous with the dreamlike flow of the narrative either, with the naivety of the narrative to which the director often referred.
WordPress does not lend itself to footnotes:
In the text above I refer to the girls making their way across the French countryside with no obvious destination in mind. In fairness, their drivers’ last words are “Chateau d’eau”, which may or may not be the castle they seem to stumble upon thereafter. I also refer to the unwelcome comedy of Mireille D’Argent’s seduction of a passerby, and should acknowledge the presence of a similar scene early on in the film. That bothers me less, perhaps because of where it is placed chronologically, and its minimal significance to the film as a whole.
In terms of a bibliography, I consulted the following in writing this piece:
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombs and Cathol Tohill (Primitive Press, 1994)
Virgins & Vampires, by Jean Rollin (Crippled Library, 1997)
The essay Rollin wrote to accompany the three-disk, Encore edition of the film from Holland (2005)
Tim Lucas’ liner notes which accompany the Redemption blu ray from the US (2012