I confess I have never seen any of Jean Rollin’s films, but a new documentary about him has whetted my appetite for his work. “Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin” premieres February 14 on the Arrow streaming service.
Directors Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger have mined their obsessive love for Rollin’s work to produce an intriguing testament to the value of an underappreciated filmmaker more than often characterized as a maker of exploitation films and pornography. He was all that, of course, but the film works hard to demonstrate that his art was grounded in a love of surrealist art and poetry. His work (film and novels) is usually identified as belonging to the “fantastique” genre, a combination of science fiction, horror, and fantasy that has a long and fascinating history.
The length and complexity of Rollin’s Wikipedia page testifies to the size and depth of his fan base. Rollin (1938-2010) was born near Paris. His father was a theater actor and director and his mother was an artist’s model who was friends with surrealist writers such as George Bataille. (In an interview, co-directer Ellinger laments that “If anyone could have translated Bataille’s Story of the Eye, for example, it would have been him.”)
During his military service he worked on army commercials and documentaries with future director Claude (A Man and a Woman) Lelouch. After working on some aborted shorts he made his first feature, Le Viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire) in 1968, which was unfortunately panned for the audacity of being released during the May ‘68 political strikes in France. He made three more vampire films over the next three years and gradually found a larger audience for his work.
After the failure of his first non-vampire film, “La Rose de Fer” Rollin made hardcore porn films under the pseudonym Michel Gentil to make a living. He was able to return to horror films on occasion during this period. In 1978 he made one of his key films, Les raisins de la mort (The Grapes of Death), starring porn actress Brigitte Lahaie. Rollin had worked with her in his adult sex films, this was her first role in a mainstream film and they would work several times together, most notably in Fascination (1979) in which her character memorably kills a woman with a scythe.
Jean continued making films until the late aughts before he died in 2010 at age 72. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fantasia International Film Festival in 2007. His filmography is very long yet his films are still hard to find. (Some are available for purchase and streaming–see below.) In an interview for the Nightmarish Conjurings website, co-director Dima says she loves Rollin’s work because “he gives me a glimpse into a twilight world of the uncanny, that is impossible to describe in words, and is rarely experienced in life except through art.”
This new documentary is an excellent start for new fans and a welcome valentine for longtime lovers of Rollin’s unique work. Watch it on Arrow.