Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lips of Blood (1975)

The Movie: Frédéric (Jean Rollin associate Jean-Loup Philippe), a fairly successful man, experiences a shock at the reception for the launch of a new perfume. The photograph on a poster, showing a ruined castle by the sea, triggers a memory from when he was about twelve (Frédéric as a child is played by Rollin’s son, Serge). One night, while following a dog, he got lost among some castle ruins. Inside the castle he stumbled upon a girl (European 1970s sexploitation queen Annie Belle, credited here as Annie Briand), a little older than him, who comforted him and watched over him while he slept. Frédéric instantly fell in love.

Unfortunately, he was never able to find the castle or the girl again. In fact, everyone around him has insisted that it never happened at all, that it was a childhood dream or fantasy that he had, nothing more. When Frédéric takes his mother (Natalie Perrey, who has been involved with just about every Jean Rollin film I’m familiar with, though not always in front of the camera) aside after seeing the poster, this is exactly how she responds (for, it is strongly implied, the million and first time). However, after seeing the poster, Frédéric is convinced that his experience was real after all and determined to rediscover the castle.

Frédéric starts by seeking the photographer (Martine Grimaud, who went on to become a French porn star) who took the picture and asking her about it. She at first refuses to tell him, saying that somebody paid her a lot of money not to. However, after he turns on the charm she agrees to meet him that night and give him everything she knows. Unfortunately, that is the start of a very strange and stressful night for our hero. He finds that somebody has murdered the photographer to prevent her from telling him what he wants to know. What’s more, strangers appear to impede his search, while strange visions of the girl seem to be guiding him to some end. One of the first places she leads him is a graveyard crypt, where Frédéric inadvertently releases four very beautiful, yet vicious and deadly, female vampires.

It is soon apparent that there is a conspiracy determined to keep Frédéric from succeeding in his quest. The girl and the vampires seem equally determined that he does succeed. Frédéric himself refuses to give up. Unfortunately, he has no idea how close to home for him the conspiracy lies…

The Review:

Scents are like memories, the person evaporates but the memory remains

Happy 2012 dear readers, albeit a little overdue. A new year! A new beginning! A new chance to accomplish things in life! And no, the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually say the world will end in December. I won’t go into the details here and now, but feel free to contact me if you really want to hear them.

For my first review of 2012 I am covering Lips of Blood, probably one of the most well known works of the late French director Jean Rollin. In fact, many consider it his masterpiece. I wouldn’t go quite that far (my personal favorites of his are Night of the Hunted and Shiver of the Vampires), but it is still a very well made and arresting piece of work.

All of the major themes Rollin liked to work with are present; love, memory, isolation, the search for answers beyond everyday life, vampirism, and having a sense of wonder of the world. There is a bit more of a streamlined, conventional plot to Lips of Blood than there is to most of Rollin’s movies, and it is a bit more accessible to a more mainstream audience; but at the same time it is still every bit as dreamy, atmospheric, haunting and emotional as one would come to expect of Rollin’s work.

Just the camera work and settings alone make this movie worth a watch. Rollin worked on a low budget, which means that he mainly shot on location; but he makes very effective work of the locations that he uses. Among other things we are presented with some very haunting shots of the castle ruins, the beach that appears in many Rollin films, a graveyard full of crypts, and various nighttime Paris locations. Many of these shots just stick with you.

However, it’s not just the settings and camera work that make this an effective movie. Much credit also needs to go to the cast and characters who drive this movie’s plot. Jean-Loup Philippe has a large responsibility as our hero and protagonist, but he pulls it off well. Unlike the only other male Rollin protagonist I can currently think of (see my November, 2011 review of Fascination), I find Frédéric to be sympathetic and identifiable. Here is a man who fully realizes that something important is missing, that the everyday world everyone tries to keep him in is unable to provide him with what he truly needs. Overall Frédéric is a good man, but he won’t let anything stand in his way to find the truth. And, while he does make a few mistakes, Frédéric ultimately proves himself to be fairly intelligent and competent.

I have seen quite a few of Annie Belle’s other movies, including the very first one she was in, Bacchanales Sexuelles/Fly Me the French Way, which Rollin directed under his Michel Gentil pseudonym. Now, I find that I often have a problem with watching Annie Belle in her movies; I tend to feel really bad about doing it. In most of her ‘70s movies Annie Belle gives off this little sister vibe (well, she’s nothing like my actual little sister, but you know what I mean), this sense of youth and innocence that makes me feel like a dirty old man; and not in a good way. It’s not until some of her later films, where she’s still gorgeous but her looks have matured a bit, that I can appreciate how sexy she is without feeling like I’m participating in the defilement of an innocent.

I tell you this so you’ll understand why when I first saw her in Lips of Blood, the sentence that kept running through my head was “it’s not just me!” Jean Rollin had to have gotten that vibe from her as well, because her character is built entirely around it. Even as we learn the dark truth of who and what the mysterious girl is, she still comes across as a childlike and sympathetic innocent; she may be a monster, but she is a monster entirely in spite of herself. The movie itself never breaks this image as well. Even though Belle does do a nude scene at the end, and one where she is making love; the camera never leers at her, never conveys the scene to us as anything other than something completely sweet and innocent.

In fact, despite being constantly categorized with the “eurosleaze” moniker, Lips of Blood really isn’t an exploitation movie at all. There is copious female nudity, this is a Rollin Picture after all, and even a bit of male nudity; but with the exception of one scene that I will get to shortly, the nudity really doesn’t come across as exploitative. It’s treated as actual art nudity, an appreciation of the human body; not just a chance to leer and ogle at bare flesh. The violence is also fairly tame, with minimum blood.

As an example of one of the perverse ironies that the gods who created this world seem so fond of, the fact that Lips of Blood is so classy is what kept it from being a commercial success. At the time it came out, movie restrictions and censorship had pretty much been dropped. Hardcore pornography was on the rise, and was threatening to edge out softcore exploitation and erotica. As a result, a quirky art film like Lips of Blood had no chance; “respectable” individuals would avoid it as sleaze, but the actual sleaze fans would be more interested in the hardcore sex films.

As I said, there is one exception to the classy nudity theme; although even it isn’t quite what it appears to be on the surface. The scene where Frédéric goes to the photographer’s studio to ask about the castle begins with a photo shoot. The photographer, wearing a robe and boots, is shooting a young woman wearing nothing but knee-high boots. The girl strikes increasingly provocative poses, until Frédéric arrives and she is dismissed. Then, after Frédéric asks the photographer about the castle, and she refuses; she goes upstairs to change for an appointment, then comes back down in nothing but her boots and a belly chain claiming she can’t find her dress. Then she agrees to tell him, propositions him, he accepts, and the scene cuts.

Now, as you can probably recognize, this scene is the reductio ad absurdum of your typical porno setup. However, “absurdum” is the key word here. Aside from the fact that there are two beautiful women in the buff (something I rarely have any problem with); the scene doesn’t come across as erotic, or even as if it’s meant to be. Instead it comes across as ridiculous to the point of being kind of funny. Knowing what I do about Rollin now, how at the time he had to crank out a lot of hardcore pornography to get the money for the projects he wanted to film; I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t trying to make a point with this scene. If nothing else, I get the sense that he might have been using the scene to laugh at his own issues.

The final element I’d like to discuss is the vampires. Rollin had a thing with the theme of vampirism, and he liked to experiment with it in his movies. Particularly in this film, the vampires are nothing like the pop culture versions of vampires we so often think of. On the one hand, they are sexy; particularly with two of them wearing only a thin, translucent veil. However, it is equally clear that they are dangerous. There are several scenes where the vampires look at a victim with expressions of such hunger that it’s rather discomforting.

However, despite that they are sympathetic. Essentially, these vampires are extensions of Rollin’s favorite theme of isolationism. They are completely cut off from humanity; partly because of how dangerous their hunger is to others, and partly through their inability to communicate, only able to growl, snarl and scream. And at the end, when they are destroyed, despite the danger they represent there is still something incredibly sad about it.

The two vampires that most catch the attention are played by Marie-Pierre and Catherine (who I’ve heard is a successful director now) Castel, identical twins who Rollin used often, singularly and together, in his movies. If nothing else they provide a bit of humor with my two favorite moments in the film. The first is when they are leaving their crypt for the first time; one of the girls has an evil grin on her face while the other has this zombiesh expression like she still needs her coffee. The other is a scene where they break Frédéric out of a mental hospital disguised as nurses.

In the end, Lips of Blood is an art movie in the true sense of the term. It is a beautiful, sensual and haunting piece of work that invokes emotions we don’t really see much in movies anymore. If you’re into odd art movies, definitely worth seeing.

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