- Writer, Director:
- Jean Rollin.
- Norbert Marfaing-Sintes.
- Ovidie, Sabine Lenoël, Natalie Perrey, Jean-Loup Philippe, Françoise Blanchard, Sandrine Thoquet, Maurice Lemaître, Simone Rollin.
Unlike Jess Franco, who — as regular readers will remember — has regressed as director, Jean Rollin seems to have quietly grown into an accomplished auteur. His penultimate film, La nuit des horloges (“the night of the clocks”), is an artistic tour de force and by far the best Rollin film I’ve seen. Indeed, by far the best exploitation film I’ve seen in a long while.
The film concerns Isabelle (played by porn-actress/feminist-theorist Ovidie), cousin of the recently deceased writer/director Michel Jean, and her encounters with the ghosts of Jean’s creations. Michel was, of course, Rollin’s middle name, and Nuit is full of quotations from his films; in a sense, it is something of an artistic epitaph, summarizing and commenting on all his previous work. Isabelle visits the cemetery where Jean is buried, and the house she inherited from him, and everywhere meets ghosts of Jean’s/Rollin’s characters, clips from his films, and allusions to his recurring themes: the beach in Dieppe, the two vampire girls, the harlequins. Through these quotations, Rollin achieves a strange kind of alchemy, reimagining all his old films as part of a grand project, the culmination of which is La nuit des horloges. Having watched the film, I sat for a while staring at the empty screen, thinking “So this is the film Rollin’s been making all his career,” and was overcome with an urge to watch all his films again, to find the clues I must have missed that Rollin was even capable of a movie like this.
There isn’t much plot to speak of, but there is a dreamlike logic at work. Isabelle moves in and out of Jean’s imaginary world, and her confusion grows as the boundary between reality and illusion weakens. Characters keep appearing and disappearing, speaking variations of the same lines — “It is the dead that dream of the living,” “Nothing is truly real,” “Death is much more beautiful on film than in real life”.
And it is a beautiful film. I’ve always said Rollin has a talent for composing pretty shots, and La nuit des horloges proves that once again. And this time, he has let go of a lot of the exploitation baggage that used to weigh down his film — the needless gore, the arch angles — leaving an atmospheric and, yes, beautiful film, that keeps pausing the action (what there is of it) for pretty montages, but without degenerating into atmospheric shoe-leather. There’s a sense of a genuine artistic vision here, that Rollin’s earlier films sometimes lacked. There’s also a distinct overtone of melancholy; all those tragic ghosts, waiting for their dead creator to return — faded, abandoned images in search of a home. In the end, Isabelle too is turned into one of Jean’s character: the little girl looking for her beloved cousin, who forgets his name, even her own name, and knows only that she must keep looking for him.
I never figured Jean Rollin for a postmodernist, but this is undeniably a self-reflexive film; it lets different layers of illusion blend into one another, and concerns itself with the reality of illusion (to borrow a phrase from Žižek) and the illusory nature of reality. One character late in the film even talks of herself as a character in the film Michel Jean is currently shooting. But despite its sophistication, its complexity, it is by no means a “difficult” movie. Unlike a lot of self-reflexive films, it doesn’t require extensive analysis to understand. It is, and I mean this in the most positive way, an obvious film; it feels natural, if it in fact is the conclusion to some project that all his films have secretly been a part of.
It’s not a perfect film: there are still odd zooms, bad acting, strange music cues — but somehow it doesn’t matter; the film still works. I don’t know where Rollin found this magic, but with La nuit des horloges he has, within the space of ninety minutes of seemingly ordinary film, managed to completely change my view of him as a film maker. Something I never even knew was possible. And all this while still remaining firmly planted in exploitation, without letting go of his artistic ticks — the long stretches of dialogue-free montages, the weird monologues, the nudity. But this time, those ticks don’t detract from the film, they add to it. In short: magic.