It is not the destiny of every artist to be known beyond the reaches of their imagination. It’s a sad truth that sometimes, well past an artist’s prime or even after their life has ended, is when someone’s catalogue of works become appreciated. Such is the case with writer/director Jean Rollin, a major player in the fantastique genre whose films — such as: Le Viol du Vampire (1968), La Vampire Nue (1970), Requiem pour un Vampire (1971) — were too fantastical for horror fans and too grotesque for fantasy fans. For decades, Rollin made films on shoe-string budgets, barely making a profit, yet he persisted even when it seemed no one cared about his work, turning to directing pornography to help finance his films. It was only until a few years before his passing that international home video placed his films in front of more receptive audiences, building a fan-base that included critics whom had once panned his films and began to reevaluate his work. Documentarians Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger sit down with a number of friends and coworkers of Rollin to offer a deeper dive for those who know the auteur’s work, but, more importantly, to create an introduction for modern cinephiles who may have missed the influential films. Their film, Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin, is more than a collection of interviews, photographs, and restored video, it’s a love letter to an individual who never received his flowers in his day.
Let’s define some things before moving forward.
The film genre “fantastique” has its roots in French literature, combining aspects of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. As explained by Ballin and Ellinger, Rollin’s mother was friends with several influential French artists (writers, philosophers, painters). So between his love of cinema at an early age and adolescent guidance from these creators, Rollin was able to craft stories through the lens of surrealism, which allowed him to tell tales with their own rules, tales that evoked moody darkness and explored sexual identity. Also, according to Ballin, Ellinger, and several of the interviewees, though the films, especially the early ones, were low budget, they each possessed a specific perspective and evocative quality that, if you were on the same wavelength, you would connect with them quite strongly. Most of his films possess stories where the narrative is loose, relying on the actors and mise en scène to convey meaning to the audience. Finally, presence of nudity in his films, particularly the hard-core sex scenes which some feature, are a by-product of the requirements of one of Rollin’s financiers who insisted that the films include sex, but primarily come from Rollin’s upbringing which included an interrogation of the human body and the negative connotations prescribed by Catholicism. There are obvious moments where nudity is included to titillate, but the intention for the majority isn’t; rather, it’s to explore, present, and otherwise use nudity as an expression of identity. Because nudity is so prominent in his films, fantastique or pornographic, there are plenty of nude bodies throughout the documentary and they are impressively handled by Ballin and Ellinger so as not to arouse or thrill but to educate. Whether by their own narration or through the interviewees, the naked form and sexual presence within the narratives are each handled clinically, offering historical context or personal significance for each release.
So how is all the above handled to ensure that newbies (like this reviewer) and old fans alike can approach Orchestrater of Storms with a sense of understanding and/or excited vigor? Ballin and Ellinger utilize a mix of voice-over narration (Ayvianna Snow and Benoît Carry, who dictate several of Rollin’s notes), stylish transitions between individuals and photographs, and deep exploration of an auteur through the lens of his friends and historical record. Each of these layers create a mosaic that better defines Rollin as an artist that any audience member can connect with. For instance, the above explanation regarding Rollin’s approach to his work comes from a mix of standard talking head interviews from friends, historians, and collaborators, as well as behind-the-scenes footage and final filmed material. It would be far less effective in communicating the story of Rollins if it was just a recitation of events like a book report. Instead, Ballin and Ellinger lay out the information as though making a case for reputation repair, laying down one piece of information after another through various media. Sometimes this means placing three photos down next to each other, the camera slowly moving over each one as the narrator speaks, only for the camera to zoom in on a specific photo as the narration dives into whatever the photo has captured. Other times, we’re shown the photo enhanced before the camera pulls out, bringing to our attention other images of note. This technique helps create momentum to the chronological-based story within Orchestrator of Storms, preventing the documentary from growing languid.
This approach becomes most effective when exploring frequency with which Rollin was beset by poor timing through the majority of his career. His first film, Le Viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire), released in theaters during a period of local unrest as the May 1968 student strike prevented foreign films from reaching French theaters. Ballin and Ellinger use a composition of news footage, stills, and materials captured by individuals close to Rollins to create context for the history surrounding the release of the film. Context matters because there are two ways to view the release of Le Viol du Vampire. The first is to consider what history states: that the film was received so badly by its audience that they reacted violently, throwing bottles, chairs, and more at the screen. The other is offered by Ballin and Ellinger, who provide additional information to explain why the audience was already riled up and Le Viol du Vampire not being like any typical commercial release was the fodder many needed to express their frustration. Easily, the documentarians could bring up this event as a moment of ridicule, like so many other setbacks that occur throughout Rollin’s career, but they do it to explain how not only was Rollin outside of his colleague’s circle of artistic style but it seemed his timing was lacking regarding public interest and consumption, as well.
At the start of the documentary, the shroud is light as Ballin and Ellinger explore and explain Rollin’s upbringing via his separated actor/director father and intellectual mother. In this portion of Orchestrator of Storms, Ballin and Ellinger use a collage of photographs, historical records, and talking head interviews with their own supportive imagery to guide the audience through the seminal moments in Rollin’s life that bring us to his first film. There’s a holistic approach in the early portions so that the context for Rollin’s work is clear. However, the further into the documentary we go, the more narrow the focus into Rollin’s filmography becomes, looking at the people he worked with and the shift in his career from traditional filmmaker into pornography. As the French attitude toward the naked form is very different from the attitudes of others, it’s important to note that the film not once denigrates Rollin’s time working in pornography, especially because the shift introduced Rollin to actor/muse Brigitte Lahaie (Les raisins de la mort (The Grapes of Death)/Fascination). It’s at this point that Ballin and Ellinger become so entranced by Rollin’s professional ups-and-downs that the audience doesn’t learn much about the man himself outside of his joy during his later years of finally finding an audience for his work. In one interview with CineMuerte Horror Film Festival founder Kier-La Janisse, we’re told a story in which Rollin not only flew himself out to the festival on his own dime (the festival itself being tiny and run by a video store clerk financing it herself), but wrapped himself in incredible joy seeing a sparsely filled theater screening one of his films (Janisse’s not sure if it’s Fascination). Just as Janisse felt elation at Rollin’s jubilation, so does the viewing audience as, by this point, it feels as though we’ve gone on a journey with him. That said, when it’s mentioned that he’s married and that his wife, Simone, starred in his final film, Le masque de la Méduse, one can’t help but wonder about that portion of his life that’s inexplicably left out. If his childhood so influenced his work, wouldn’t his adult life do the same? Amid the stylish transitions, well-executed narrations of Rollin’s words, and deep exploration of an auteur who’s much more appreciated now than ever, one can’t help but feel like Orchestrator of Storms skipped a few chapters in order to drill into the work after providing a baseline on the man.
This is going to sound like a nit-pick, but there are also moments in which it appears as though Rollin’s influence can be felt now, yet they’re not explored. As an example, and this could be entirely conjecture, Rollin released The Living Dead Girl in 1982, a film about two friends, one of which is a living dead girl who must find ways to satiate her desire for blood and viscera. In 1998, musician/writer/director Rob Zombie released Living Dead Girl, a song whose lyrics fit into the same kind of confrontational sexual intercourse notions that inspired many of the ideas within Rollin’s work. Zombie is a noted horror historian and, though the music video for the song takes inspiration from Robert Wiene’s silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the lyrics include references to other horror films like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Daughters o’ Darkness (1971), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and others. It’s not that Ballin and Ellinger should stop the documentary to make a connection between Rollin’s film The Living Dead Girl and Zombie, however, there are likely many confirmed modern day examples that would help those new to Jean Rollin better understand the auteur’s influence.
If the goal of a documentary is to inform, perhaps to incite action by the audience on the part of the subject, then Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin is a proper success as this has inspired a desire to explore Rollin’s work. Through the documentary, it’s mentioned that his films have been placed on DVD and Blu-ray, so they are accessible and, perhaps, as Arrow Films is distributing Orchestrator of Storms, the home release boutique may have their own restorations coming down the line. Should this be the case, Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin is a solid introduction to an artist whose work may now find its place among others whose time wasn’t in their prime, but well after they’ve left us. It’s a legacy they didn’t get to see to fruition, but from whose seeds much of the current landscape of horror may own a proper debt.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin Fantasia International Film Festival film page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.