I’d never heard of Jean Rollin before, so when this documentary about his life and work turned up I was rather excited to give it a go. As usual I had my notepad out, ready to jot down the odd movie that would be worth a look, but by halfway through I just assumed it safer to work through his filmography. I appreciate that a lot of effort when into making this a valid and informative collection of anecdotes and titbits for long-time fans, but I’m quite sure directors Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger are going to take my uneducated reaction as a win.
Truth be told, the mandatory montage at the start pretty much got me hooked with its cavalcade of lurid titles, surreal and excited images, and perfectly framed boobs. Amongst this sexy faux historic phantasmagoria was also the use of the term “EuroCult”, something I’d never heard used before to describe European genre cinema. This was solid foreshadowing that I wasn’t in for two hours of the highlights reel for 18-rated Carry-On films.
The structure of the piece is rather straightforward, going through Rollins’s childhood, work in cinema, and eventual death. I was a little surprised by this at the start, given the bold strangeness of his style, but rapidly saw its strength as it allowed for intricate discussion of the intentions and themes of his work. Given how much of them, on the surface, look like blood-filled stag films it helped explain to the newcomer why people found them so compelling; something you won’t get from a 30-second clip and a magnificently crazy movie poster.
This allowed room for the general climate of the industry that Rollin was working both in and against to come in, and leaded to the most interesting and honest parts of his tale. The compromises, often involving having to make the films more “commercial” by toning down the imagination and upping the sex, were discussed openly and frankly. There wase even an admission of the great taboo of as doing work, including pure pornography, solely for the cash to either live or fund more arty projects. Open secrets perhaps, but still a bold move to cover.
By elevating the piece beyond mere praise and putting it into a fuller context means that even if the films don’t play to your tastes it’s worth it for anyone with a deeper interest in cinema to watch. It also helps to make clear the links of what are essentially budget horror movies to the surrealist, French Anarchist, Avant Garde, and intellectual movements. That there is the overarching story of someone who just wanted to make the kind of movie they liked, and was by all presented accounts a decent person to work with, is just the cherry on the cake.
Whilst I can’t promise you won’t take such a wholesale approach to his work (the BBFC offers a wtching guide here (https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/where-begin-jean-rollin) , which is pretty impressive given how passed over these were at the time of release), I can say that you’ll find this journey into his personal darkness worth your time. If nothing else, it gives another set of tools to consider psychotronic films with, and a taste of the more offbeat fantastique.