Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fascination (1979)

The Movie: After a successful robbery, professional thief Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) betrays his companions and runs off with the stolen gold himself. The bandits chase him to an isolated chateau, where he takes refuge. However, he quickly finds that he is not alone.

It turns out that there are two women currently residing in the chateau; Eva (the talented, lovely, and terrifying Brigitte Lahaie of Faceless and Night of the Hunted) and Elisabeth (Franca Mai). They claim to be servants preparing the house for the arrival of their mistress the next day. The two women at first play the part of the innocents scared of the big bad bandit and his gun, but a discerning eye will notice that they seem a bit too relaxed. After allowing themselves to be locked up, and using the chance for a lesbian interlude; they return to confront Marc again, all pretenses dropped this time. Important life lesson I learned from movies: if everything should indicate that you are in control of a situation, and yet the other people involved act otherwise; carefully reconsider everything because you aren’t in control.

After playing a few power games to determine who is in control (which Marc, poor bastard, never realizes he’s lost), the women are suddenly very obliging and offer him hospitality. They tell him they can provide him with food, safety from his former comrades, a place to rest, and sexual favors from Eva. Marc eagerly partakes in all of them. Most important life lesson I gained from horror movies: if something seems too good to be true, chances are it probably is. They also tell him about a special event that night.

However, Elisabeth quietly tells Marc she has fallen for him; and that he needs to leave now, because if he stays after dark it will mean his death. Marc disregards Elisabeth’s increasing warnings and stays, still nurturing the illusion that he is in control of the situation. The inevitable finally comes, but admittedly it arrives in an unexpected manner…

The Review:

It has been a little over a year since I’ve reviewed a film by the late Jean Rollin, hence my choice for today’s review. Fascination is perhaps one of Rollin’s better known flicks, as well as one of his movies that is more comprehensible to a mainstream audience. The bare bones of the plot are very simple and basic in and of themselves; when we are finally told what is specifically going on with the chateau’s owners, it has the potential to be a letdown it’s so simple. However, with a good cast and his flair for the dramatically bizarre, Rollin is able to create a very arresting little movie.

The character of Marc is something that would probably torpedo most mainstream movies; he’s a very unlikable protagonist. Playing an asshole character is a thankless position; if you do it well people associate you with the asshole you play, but if you do it poorly you are a bad actor. Marc, in short, is not just an arrogant asshole; he’s also such an idiot that he makes Darwin Awards contestants look smart. I would find it completely unbelievable if I didn’t follow politics.

I would be the first to admit that I tend to be very oblivious and bad at picking things up, particularly when it comes to social cues. However, I’m pretty sure even I could take a hint when it comes in the form of a direct “if you aren’t gone by nightfall you are going to be killed.” Likewise, a woman going outside to negotiate with dangerous people who she couldn’t possibly be a match against; yet who comes back in unharmed with a bloody scythe slung over her shoulder, should be a sign to anyone that he has stumbled into a very bad situation. Finally there is the character of Helene, the leader of the coven of women who arrives at nightfall. Fanny Magier probably has more presence in this movie than anyone else except Brigitte Lahaie, and it’s very clear at first glance that this is not a woman you want to mess with if you don’t want something extremely nasty and painful to happen to you. When the inevitable finally happens to Marc, I find it not so much a tragedy as some much needed chlorine for the gene pool.

However, the fact that Marc is so unlikeable is not the poison to the movie it probably would be elsewhere. I know I usually harp on how these movies only work when you can like and/or identify with the protagonist(s); but Fascination is the exception that proves the rule. Rollin’s movies aren’t your typical films; they are not character driven, and aren’t necessarily about the protagonist. In fact, Marc is in many ways a plot device more than a character. He personally is not important, but the situation he’s in is.

And the situation is plenty nightmarish in and of itself. Rollin makes expert use of setting and atmosphere to bring us into one of his dreamlike realms. The credits, where Lahaie and Mai dance on a bridge to the eerie tune from old phonograph; and the opening scene, where two rich women visit a butcher shop to drink ox blood prevent anemia; are both beautifully staged and just off-kilter enough to prevent the audience from being at ease. And I can’t stress enough the scene where the chateau’s guest arrive; where with just lighting and a mildly threatening music score Rollin makes high class women in turn of the twentieth century attire seem far more scary and dangerous than they probably should.

Then there is the nature of the villains, themselves. Rollin plays with one of his favorite movie themes, vampirism; but very differently from other movies on the subject. First of all these are very human vampires, with nothing supernatural about them at all; something I actually find much scarier to contemplate. Also, these are not the tragically beautiful vampires pop culture is saturated with these days. These women are beautiful, but this is the kind of beauty that is there to lure in victims.

The cast, as I stated earlier, is wonderful. Of course, as you probably expect, I’m probably going to gush more about Brigitte Lahaie more than the others. As usual she is perfect in this role, both gorgeous and terrifying in equal measures. Particularly iconic for fans of European cult cinema is the scene where she cuts down the bandits with a scythe while only wearing a black cloak; successfully imitating the Grim Reaper in a way that is not at all coincidental. When Lahaie goes into full psychotic mode it is terrifying in a way no American movie psycho can match; utterly silent, but intense, determined, and in a way that makes it obvious that she is relishing the bloodshed. No, I still don’t know why I have a thing for women who scare the living hell out of me.

Franca Mai, while not having quite the sheer screen presence of Lahaie or Magier, still has enough to give an effective performance. She actually has some scenes where she comes across as subtly (and not so subtly) scary in her own right. What’s more, she is beautiful and fully able to portray her character.

In conclusion, Fascination is very much a Jean Rollin picture, but still fairly different from the movies he had made up to that point. Rollin makes excellent use of the setting, lights and atmosphere; bringing us once more to a realm that exists just past the borders of the world we know. The cast is wonderful; and for trash movie lovers there is some bloodshed alongside truly beautiful women who show a lot of bare skin. If you’re a fan of European cult cinema, or just looking for something different, you should definitely check Fascination out.