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Breach of Consent: Jean Rollin and Le Viol du Vampire

  • David BakerEmail author
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Part of the Palgrave Gothic book series (PAGO)

Abstract

This chapter analyses Jean Rollin’s production Le Viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire) (1968), considering the ways in which, through its focus on the violation of the vampire and vampiric space, the film radically complicates the intricate notions of victimhood, hospitality and consent. The problematic production and release history of the film are considered, as are the difficulties contemporary viewers had with it by contextualising its complex generic positioning; genres are mixed and intermingle in the film, undermining any stable viewing position.

The title of Jean Rollin’s audacious first feature film Le Viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire) (1968) is a clear act of provocation. The conventional situation—where the monster violates the human—is reversed; here it is the vampire who is the victim of human atrocity. In Rollin’s film, one of four vampire sisters is gang raped—this act in the film’s “present” is a recurrence of a trauma the woman had suffered around sixty years earlier. The film also trades in older connotations of the French verb viol: on the one hand meaning “lack of respect” (specifically infantilisation); on the other “profanation”, “violation”, “transgression” (of sacred or sanctified vampire space).

The traditional vampire is always regarded as “fair game”, on the grounds that it lacks personhood: it is a persona, mimicking a particular status and role (which is attached to certain obligations), but is not a person in the Christian-derived sense of being an independent, self-governing moral entity. It has neither conscience nor any of the markers of a soul. It is, for example, notoriously incapable of defining and individuating its subjectivity through practices of confession: Dracula never confesses his sins. 1 In the classical vampire narrative, the monster transgresses human space. The laws of hospitality dictate that—passing as human—it should typically be invited into patriarchal space to be received and entertained with liberality and goodwill. Jacques Derrida suggests that the laws of hospitality invoke a “conjugal model, paternal and phallogocentric. It is the familial despot, the father, the spouse, and the boss, the master of the house who lays down the laws of hospitality. He represents them and submits to them to submit the others to them” (Derrida 2000, 149). The traditional vampire consequently takes advantage of the offer, conflating the invitation to enter the familial space with a forced entry into the psychic and bodily sanctity of specific, vulnerable family members. For the patriarchal host, the problem of hospitality, again following Derrida, is coextensive with the ethical problem: for the host and/or his agents and representatives “it is always about answering for a dwelling place, for one’s identity, one’s space, one’s limits, for the ethos as abode, habituation, house, hearth, family, home” (2000, 149–150). The narrative closure of the classical vampire story equates with the death of the monster, the forcible eviction of the mark or trace of the vampire from the patriarchal home and subsequent restoration of order.

Rollin’s intervention into the conventional logic of vampire film might be characterised by such Derridean metaphors as occupying the oblique—“From above to below, from outside to inside, and from the back to the front”—and luxation—putting out of joint, dislocating (Derrida 1982, xiv–xv). Rollin remains inside the classical vampire logic, but occupies it obliquely in thus dislocating it. He avoids the ambush of “frontal and symmetrical protest, opposition in all the forms of anti-, or in any case to inscribe antism and overturning, domestic denegation” (Derrida 1982, xv). In making his focus the rape of the vampire, Rollin avoids identification, whereby the audience is invited, by various filmic techniques, to empathise with and regard events from the vampire’s point of view. Le Viol flat-out refuses to engage the audience through such techniques as shot-reverse-shot, point-of-view shot, clear narrative causation, continuity editing and so forth. Identification with the vampire is, from this angle, no more than an inversion of the traditional logic and does little more than reinforce it—the pitiable monster remains a destabilising foreign element to the sanctity and order of the patriarchal home (see e.g. Dracula’s Daughter, Hillyer 1936). Thus, Rollin is rigorous in maintaining the integrity of the traditional vampire: to invite identification is to invite personhood, to treat the vampire as a self-governing moral entity and thus to revoke precisely that which distinguishes vampire from human. However, in keeping with his oblique positioning, Rollin also anticipates the self-controlled postmodern vampire—the vampire who shows compassion for potential victims, deliberately finding “humane” alternatives to traditional vampiric stalking and feeding techniques, and who, as a result, has already crossed the threshold from vampiredom to personhood.

In this following chapter, I seek to address some of the implications of Rollin’s “violation” of the vampire. I begin with a discussion of the production and release history of the film in order to demonstrate the manner in which it promulgated a set of difficulties for contemporary viewers. Then I attempt to explain these difficulties by contextualising the film by means of its complex generic positioning—a diabolic mixing of horror, art cinema and sex/exploitation which takes its cue from a set of issues pertaining to melodrama. Finally, I trace and consider the implications of a single aspect of the film’s “storyline”—the fates of the three humans who enter and violate vampire space.

Production History, Release and Reception

Le Viol du Vampire is a combination of two different but interrelated films: Le Viol du Vampire and Les Femmes du Vampires . 2 To avoid confusion, I will refer to the whole production as Le Viol, and to its two parts by their English titles: The Rape of the Vampire and The Vampire Women respectively.

Aesthetically, this work of combination points in two directions: on the one hand, Le Viol is, by definition, not a singular discrete aesthetic object. It is not, nor does it attempt to be, an artistic whole. As with the vampires it represents, its essence is impure—a mixture that is always already contaminated. On the other, in celebrating this multiplicity and heterogeneity, Rollin reserves for himself certain rights as an auteur. He draws a close relation between Le Viol and his childhood memories of the pre-television film serial form: “the spirit, structure and contents of the serial is the key to my type of cinema”, placing Le Viol in a cinematic serial tradition that includes Jungle Jim (1948ff), The Shadow (1940ff) and Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940ff) (Blumenstock 1995).

Due to its incessant and unhesitating disruption of spatio-temporal, narrative and audio/image continuities, it is nearly impossible to provide a coherent plot summary for Le Viol. The Rape of the Vampire concerns four nameless sisters who live in a chateau on a country estate, each of whom I will call by their dominant characteristics: “Dutiful”, “Heliophobe”, 3 “Blind” and “Raped”. The sisters thus have personae, mimicking status and roles, but their namelessness literally deprives them of personhood. They receive instructions from a mysterious Lord of the Manor, by means of an effigy entitled Treybus, who orchestrates a fragile peace between them and the neighbouring population. The sisters believe they are vampires, as do the townspeople. Three young sophisticated Parisiennes enter, uninvited, this situation: Thomas, a psychoanalyst, is accompanied by a young married couple Marc and Brigitte, and, although offered no hospitality, seeks to disabuse the sisters of their superstitious belief. The results of this intervention are nothing short of disastrous: Raped is violated and murdered by townsmen, Brigitte inexplicably dies, Dutiful seeks to slay the intruders in order to maintain the delicate equilibrium but is opposed by Heliophobe who seeks an end to vampiredom. The two engage in a fencing duel and Dutiful is killed. The last sister believes that she is blind but is persuaded that she is not—only to have her eyes destroyed when a stake is thrown at her face by a peasant. She is left wandering as a madwoman. Meanwhile, Thomas falls in love with Heliophobe, becomes accidentally infected and turns into a vampire himself. Grieving, Marc concludes the film by shooting Thomas and Heliophobe dead.

The Vampire Women opens where the previous film left off. The disequilibrium created by Thomas’s intervention summons the Vampire Queen, who immediately puts the Lord of the Manor to death for his incompetence/traitorousness as her agent. The Queen is betrayed by her female Chief Assistant who allows Thomas and Heliophobe to return to vampire “life”. The Vampire Queen has charge of a medical clinic which does research on “the living dead”. In their spare time, the Chief Assistant and a Doctor, her lover, seek to find a cure for the Chief Assistant’s vampirism; they are later joined by Thomas and Heliophobe. The Queen revives both Dutiful and Brigitte. After the two researchers are united in a blood wedding, the Queen is poisoned, all her minions are killed, Dutiful and Blind kill one another, Thomas and Heliophobe wall themselves in a room so as not to infect anyone further, the Chief Assistant dies from injecting the cure for vampirism, and the film concludes with a once again distraught Marc holding Brigitte’s lifeless body in his arms.

The Rape of the Vampire was originally financed because Jean Lavie, a distributor friend of Rollin’s, sought to screen the American horror film Dead Men Walk (Newfield 1943) in several popular cinemas in Paris, but because of its relatively short length needed another half an hour for the programme. Rollin approached Sam Selsky who agreed to finance The Rape of the Vampire given that it already had a contract and distributor and thus represented minimal financial risk. Due to a combination of factors—Lavie’s distribution deal fell through and Selsky (who considered the film bizarre enough to be financially successful) believed it would be better to distribute a ninety-minute feature than a thirty-minute short—The Vampire Women was completed (Blumenstock 1995).

Le Viol happened to be released in May 1968 in Paris, when civil unrest and general paralysis spread across France. 4 A particularly audacious and provocative “narrative image”—an idea of the film promoted by marketing materials (Ellis 1981, 30)—helped generate specific audience expectations. The original poster for Le Viol du Vampire makes the following claim: “les premiers films de vampires francais” (“the first French vampire films”). 5 Thirty years later, Rollin suggested that the 1968 French audience knew only Hammer vampires (Black 2002). In the light of this, the claim to being the first “contemporary” French vampire film can be read as a warning to audiences to expect something new and different. The long-term effect of this advertising strategy would be that Rollin, who subsequently released a cloud of vampire features, would become synonymous with the French vampire film over the subsequent ten years.

Because Le Viol was the only new feature film to be released in four theatres in Paris in May 1968, it drew considerably larger crowds and wider critical discussion than anticipated. The general impenetrability of the film created a horde of unhappy spectators. In a 1996 interview, Rollin reflected: “Le Viol was a terrible scandal here in Paris. People were really mad when they saw it. In Pigalle, they threw things at the screen” (Black 2002). Critical appraisal of the film was universal in its condemnation. However, as Gerard Dapena notes, “The Rape of the Vampire became overnight a success de scandal” (2010, 233). On the strength of its financial success, Rollin was able to fund a second feature and was consequently able to develop a career as a filmmaker. 6

Although, paradoxically, they ultimately worked in Rollin’s favour, the events of the film’s release raised the question of why audiences responded so violently. Indeed, in later interviews, Rollin remained genuinely hurt and perplexed by the film’s reception: “The scandal was a terrible surprise for me. I didn’t know that I had made such a ‘bizarre’ picture” (Black 2002); “I absolutely didn’t expect this reaction; it hit me like a bolt from the blue! People were shouting, throwing trash at the screen. The press went crazy and called me a madman, they called the film the work of a group of crazy students! I was really afraid they are going to lynch me” (Blumenstock 1995). The answer is complex and most likely involves a set of local factors to do with the time and place of the initial release of the film. Cinema patrons were simply caught up in the heady atmosphere of the May ’68 moment—rioting and anarchy had spread from Paris all over the country. Rollin’s memory, some thirty years later, of the review of the film by influential centre-right newspaper Le Figaro is very instructive: “[T]his film is certainly made by a group of drunk people, probably medical students. It’s a joke” (Black 2002). Whether or not Rollin’s memory is accurate, the comments dramatise a particular sense of May ’68—the “medical” aspects of the film are conflated with unruly “drunken” students, the instigators of the anarchic situation which prevailed across France. The cinema, Rollin’s film in particular, enacts the soixante-huit disorder and chaos.

Rollin might fairly have anticipated an art house audience sensitive to the spatial and temporal discontinuities in which the film trades. However, contingencies around the release of the film took it out of the art house and into a wider reception environment—especially as the advertising campaign encouraging the audience to view it as the first French vampire production.

The actual rioting in the cinema in which audiences threw things at the screen took place in the Pigalle theatre, located in the “sex” district of Paris. We might surmise that the rioting was a result of frustration—a breach of contract: the Pigalle audience had expected an exploitation/sex film, at worst a sexy vampire film. 7 However, due to its art/avant-garde pretensions, the film frustrated audiences at every turn.

The film’s general lack of audience accommodation is closely related to the problem of genre. Le Viol’s audience expects one thing but receives another. In having given their consent to watch, on the basis of certain generic expectations, Le Viol’s angry, indeed scandalised, audience subscribe to what Derrida describes as the Law of Genre. “As soon as the word genre is sounded … a limit is drawn … norms and interdictions are not far behind: ‘Do,’ ‘Do not,’ says genre … as soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity” (Derrida 1992, 224–225). By committing oneself to the law of genre, Derrida suggests, one commits oneself to be responsible (225). The unhappy audience is dedicated to one or another generic responsibility—speaking for vampire films, or sex films, or quality films and so on. Derrida asks further: “suppose for a moment that it were impossible not to mix genres. What if there were, lodged within the heart of the law itself, a law of impurity or a principle of contamination?” (225). The thrust of Derrida’s argument is that the law of genre contains both interpretations—genre sets up norms and interdictions while at the same time collapsing the very purity upon which the principle is built. Rollin is sensitive to this generic contamination.

Mixing Genres: Horror, Art Cinema, Sex/Exploitation

Le Viol mixes genres; it is a bustling, heterogeneous, impure text. Horror, art cinema and sex/exploitation clash frustratingly, at times violently. Noël Carroll argues that the horror monster is itself “a fusion figure … a composite that unites attributes held to be categorically distinct and/or at odds in the cultural scheme of things in unambiguously one, spatio-temporally discrete entity” (1990, 43). The vampire fuses human/animal, sanity/madness, life/death, and consequently thematises the problem of limits and boundaries between these elements. Further, Carroll poses the question of the kind of threat the monster makes: psychological, moral and social (43). Rollin’s female vampires—whether inhabiting a space independent from the social order like the four sisters, or positing an alternative future like the Vampire Queen and her circle—present a psychological, moral and social threat to the patriarchal order: hence the significance of rape for the film, as reflected in inchoate anger, revenge, punishment; putting a woman back into her place.

The appeal of horror is to the visceral, excitation, the emotions: along with pornography and melodrama, it is one of the three “low cultural” cinematic genres dealing with the excesses of the body: fear, pleasure, pain (Williams 2003, 143–145). By stark contrast, the appeal of art cinema is intellectual, involving distanced and multiple viewing rather than immersion in immediate and exciting emotion. In this context, the viewer deliberately seeks connections between discontinuities, displacements, disruptions and doublings in the filmic text. Joan Hawkins (2000) has catalogued the ways in which art cinema has drawn upon and trafficked in the techniques and affect of horror: shock, revolting imagery and taboo-breaking—but the aims of art cinema are different. Rollin suggests that his cinema has “tried to find that atmosphere of dream, poetry and madness” (Black 2002) and that his primary intention was never “to scare people but to create a poetic effect and attain ‘a sense of strangeness’” (Dapena 2010, 241). Shipka, for example, suggests that Rollin’s choice of filming in black and white meant the film offered “no warmth to the audience” (2011, 275). 8

When Lavie commissioned Rollin to make Le Viol, it was “on condition the chills be paired with nudity and erotic imagery” (Dapena 2010, 231). Thus, Le Viol, and consequently the majority of Rollin’s subsequent cinematic production, overtly engages exploitation cinema: explicit representations of female bodies; sex and female desire in the service of pornographic exploitation. Although the horror aspects dominate Le Viol, the exploitation aspects are also apparent: revealing costumes, the proliferation of female breasts often not motivated by narrative requirements, sado-masochistic display and so on. 9

Critics have noted the ways in which genre-mixing has worked against Rollin, whose oeuvre occupies no clear fixed generic space. Dapena suggests that this creates a kind of liminal terrain for the reception of Rollin’s work; he is betwixt and between: his subdued depiction of gore and violence alienates modern horror fans and “at the same time, the gatekeepers of the art house have proved equally hostile” (2010, 230). Spiegland echoes this point, observing that Rollin’s films “have always been too arty to satisfy the horror crowd yet too exploitative and unprofessional to convince serious critics” (2013). The distanciation effects of art cinema contradict the haptic effects of horror and sex; the low, immoral form of sex/exploitation cinema contaminates Rollin’s claims to auteurism. It is in this mixed, impure context we seek to understand Le Viol’s generic relationship to melodrama.

Melodrama

Le Viol opens in a wooded area where a barefooted young woman in a white see-through dress leans against a tree, a vampire bat at the top of one breast, perhaps feeding. She then walks towards and supplicates before a horned, bearded statue. These shots are intercut with a group of peasant men wielding pitchforks, stakes and a shotgun. An elderly man dressed in black stands in a field. Although the spatial and temporal relations between these shots and the remainder of the film are unclear, a set of easily recognisable tropes around the vampire are being put into play. These are anchored by the narrative image that has preceded the film through poster and trailer. It is at this point that the title is announced: “Le Viol du Vampire: Mélodrame en deux parties.” Thus, the film’s narrative image—vampire and the serial form—is invoked.

This admonition to the audience to read the film as melodrama is complex. Undeniably, Rollin rehearses a set of recognisable melodramatic conventions: a focus on women, in particular a threatened, subjugated, powerless, passive female; feminine concerns around family, home and hearth—with these elements Rollin appears to target a predominantly female audience. 10 However, Le Viol’s appeal to melodrama does not end at the level of story elements; it is also a key aspect of the formal features of the film. Summarising Thomas Elsaesser’s immensely influential analysis of family melodrama, Cynthia Baron outlines three key elements: “elaborate visual style, a sophisticated, sometimes world-weary mood, and plot formulas that focus on frustrated desire and ineffectual action” (1992, 55).

Rollin explains his elaborate visual style in terms of the imagery being “certainly more important than the story itself. But the stories are done to provoke such images. In a certain way, the stories are ‘mad love’ stories and the images are surrealist visions” (Black 2002). Rollin’s privileging of the imagery over the story is a defence of a poetic rather than narrative-driven cinema: “the visual world is much more open to surrealism and metaphysics” (Blumenstock 1995). Sympathetic accounts of Rollin’s oeuvre are routinely couched in terms of the primacy of visual style in his work. 11

World-weariness is of course a classical vampire trope—eternal life comes at the price of intensified boredom and ennui. However, as Elsaesser suggests, melodrama involves not simply world-weariness, but a contradiction between “character’s seemingly spontaneous behaviour—the way self-pity and self-hatred alternate with a violent urge to some form liberating action, which inevitably fails to resolve the conflict” (2003, 392). The two parts of Le Viol stand in stark contrast to one another. The Rape of the Vampire , focusing as it does on the four passive sisters, trades in world-weariness. Wishing to free the sisters of their vampirism Thomas adopts a j’accuse mode: “Your days are spent in a state of catalepsy; that is why you feel exhausted. Vampires don’t exist.” His attempt to help the sisters by disabusing them of their “delusional” belief has the effect of inciting and releasing desire, in effect summoning the Vampire Queen into being in The Vampire Women, in which vampire desires magnify and proliferate—thus introducing a melodrama of stories of betrayal, car chase, murder and poisoning. In The Rape of the Vampire, time circles back on itself in stasis and repetition (one sister is blinded twice, another is raped twice, there are two sword-fights, there is prophecy and subsequent occurrence etc.). In The Vampire Women, time is, in turn, principally future-directed. The climactic scene is a “blood wedding”. 12 The ritual is officiated by the Vampire Queen, who enthusiastically proclaims that “[t]he time has come to seal the union of the imminent triumph of the immortal race. This wedding of blood opens up the doors to the world. The great mystery is still to take place. Another chosen one will sit among us. Many more will follow us and taste immortality.” The Queen’s desire for immortality is a radical departure from the individualistic classical vampire—it is prophetic, future-directed and collectivist. In direct contrast to the closed-off outsider space of the Manor, the blood wedding in the reopened Grand Guignol is made available to the public. Thomas’s intervention means that other vampires embrace desire with absolute and energetic enthusiasm: vampire minions seek favour with the Vampire Queen in the hope of initiation; Thomas, Heliophobe and the Chief Assistant seek cure; Blind, in a state of madness, seeks marriage with an imaginary lover. Dutiful—now serving the Vampire Queen—escapes the mayhem at the blood wedding and seeks refuge in the Queen’s boat (perhaps nurturing a desire to be the next Vampire Queen) only to be thwarted and killed by her Blind sister.

The frustrations of unresolved desire and ineffectual action are clearly foregrounded in both parts of the film. Thomas’s attempt to “cure” the vampires of their psychological malaise is unsuccessful, much like the later medical “cure” that “heals” the patient only at the expense of killing them. All the vampire desires spawned by Thomas’s failure are thwarted. The Vampire Queen’s hope for a vampire future does not eventuate; she herself is poisoned and dies. The minions are not initiated, the blood wedding turns into a fiasco, and no lover comes for Blind.

Frustration is also a central component of the film’s deliberate manipulation of the audience, as demonstrated in the following three examples. In the first, immediately after the credits, with the invocation of the vampire film, the serial form and melodrama, the story “proper” commences with the Blind Sister wearing a black dress coming down a set of stairs. A disembodied voice-over (the Lord of the Manor) prophesises that the arrival of three strangers will be the ruin of the sisters. In the meantime, “you must satisfy the appetites of the demons coming to you”. A male hand, presumably the Lord of the Manor, comes into shot and pulls down her top, revealing her breast. We see her face in erotic abandon; then cut to an entirely unrelated scene of what appear to be masked eighteenth-century gentlemen duelling with swords.

In the second example, this scene is intercut with Thomas’s attempts to cure a hooded Heliophobe by taking her out into the early morning light, then removing the hood. The woman is seriously disturbed by the light and falls to the ground. Intercut with this scene, another of the sisters is pursued by a group of townsmen. Brigitte, making no attempt to intervene, watches the chase from behind a barbed metal fence. The sister lunges ineffectually at Brigitte with a rock at the moment she is attacked by the peasants. The next shot shows Brigitte leaning discombobulated against the fence, with cuts on her face. We then see her collapsing dead four times from different angles in a ploughed field. Thomas runs to Raped lying prone, looking as though she has died. In these scenes, there is a kind of double transference in relation to Brigitte—both the attack on Raped and Heliophobe’s collapse in the face of sunlight transfer, inexplicably, to the human woman.

In the third example, the first scene is a crypt, where the Vampire Queen accuses her Chief Assistant of betrayal and, ironically, seeks confession from her. The Chief Assistant is slapped in the face and tied naked. From this point, the sound-track refuses fidelity to the image track and is made up of wind noise, piercing screams, female laughter and intermittent electric sounds. The image track shows two female minions putting on masks; light is shone onto the abused and humiliated woman, making her scream more. We then cut to the Chief Assistant who is being theatrically lashed with what appears to be pieces of kelp by two servants while she is tied to pylons on a beach. The next scene shows her writhing, alone, tied in a glasshouse overgrown with leaves; then we cut to the beach scene, back to glasshouse and finally to a close-up of the Chief Assistant in the crypt. No confession is forthcoming. The action is unresolved.

In each case, the generic expectation is that of a particularly sadistic/erotic exploitation film. But the film fails to deliver, instead providing something else. The sadistic/erotic encounter is adumbrated in the first example, displaced in the second, while, in the third, spatio-temporal juxtaposition disables any erotic charge gained from the woman remaining naked through the various spatio-temporal displacements. It is not even a case of the emotions being allowed to rise and then brought down with a thump—emotions are never given enough time to take hold. The sadistic/erotic encounter never holds still; it moves into vampire film but not a “proper” one; rather, a strange generic melange of sensation-tinged art house horror that functions to both gesture towards and undermine the vampire film. Le Viol is structured around setting up expectations and denying them; frustration is both a key thematic as well as a key aspect of viewing the film. Elsaesser’s description of characters in American film melodramas convincingly illustrates the experience of the viewer of Le Viol’s melodrama: “the tensions of seeming and being, of intention and result, register as a perplexing frustration, and an ever increasing gap opens between the emotions and the reality they seek to reach” (2003, 394).

Implicit in the admonition to “read this film as melodrama”, a limit is drawn: “do not read this film as tragedy”. The vampire is a tragic figure, in the precise sense articulated by Stanley Cavell that “[n]ot finitude, but the denial of finitude, is the mark of tragedy. This denial of finitude has been taken as the mark of sin. It was to free humanity of that libel of sinfulness that Blake and Nietzsche undertook, as it were, to deny the distinction between the finite and the infinite in thinking the human” (1979, 455). The classic vampire parodies and inverts Christ’s admonition in John 6:54: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (New Revised Standard Version 1977, NT 102). The vampire achieves eternal life by feeding on the blood of humans, a sinful denial of finitude. A stark contrast can be drawn between the classic vampire narrative, which routinely enacts the death of the vampire (the denial of the denial of finitude) at the hands of a human figure, and the “postmodern” vampire who develops self-control and thus achieves forms of personhood, thereby freeing her/himself from sinfulness and denying the distinction between finite and infinite precisely by not being destroyed at the hands of the human. The anti-tragic melodrama of Le Viol consists of its insistence that although the intervention of the human into the vampire realm instigates the proliferation of vampires (the rape/violation of the vampire institutes a multiplication of vampires), it is the betrayal of and by the vampires themselves, internecine rivalry and error that brings about their own destruction. 13

The Human Violation of the Vampire

Vampirism in The Rape of the Vampire is understood as part of a “primitive” social life. It belongs to the rustic, the visceral pastoral of the countryside. The uninvited intervention of Thomas, Marc and Brigitte is the incursion of psychological analysis, the city, the cosmopolitan. They first appear on screen as a cross-cut during the moment when Blind walks down the stairs and is addressed by the Lord of the Manor, who asserts that the “arrival of three strangers will be your ruin … the most dangerous of them will say he wants to cure you … If you speak to him he will steal your immortality”. At the precise moment the word “immortality” is uttered, the camera pans up from vision of the three strangers to reveal a tree trunk modified into a cross shape in the Manor grounds, thus drawing a close poetic connection between immortality and the Cross. The sophisticated view is anti-tragic—it seeks to impose limits on the desire (Christian or Vampiric) for infinitude.

In Le Viol, Vampirism and Christianity sustain one another. Crosses are placed all around the Manor, forming a barrier between the local people and the vampires, but at the same time protecting the vampires from the local people. A set of “origin” stories, each involving a violation of the vampire, serves to maintain and explain the isolation of the sisters from the local community: as exemplified in the account of an eighteenth-century gentleman who duelled with Heliophobe but after running her through with a sword failed to sever the head from the body. The resolution of the problem of the vampire by means of a formal fencing duel is an explicitly consensual act, proffering legitimacy to the vampire/Other. In a situation of schism, without a tribunal in which the law of hospitality, that is the law of the father, can be performed, the vampire must be challenged, must accept the challenge, and only the victory of the one who is most powerful resolves the conflict. The fencing match between the Dutiful Sister and Heliophobe repeats this logic of legitimacy and resolution—it is the mechanism by which all four decide to resist or seek cure from the intruders.

Thomas is a psychoanalyst, and confuses an organic issue with a psychosomatic problem—the vampire is not in his view a case of possession (as the church might have it) but a form of mental illness, albeit one reinforced by local tales and ideologies. As a result, he gives both the wrong diagnosis and the wrong treatment. He reduces vampirism to a specific symptomatology, thus failing to recognise that there is no single way to “be” a vampire. Although each of the four sisters recoils from crosses, none of them spend the daytime in coffins, and they differ considerably in their individual symptoms. Only one is afraid of light. Only one feeds directly on blood (from birds). Another is psychosomatically blind, and yet another is “afraid of men because of what you believe happened to you fifty years ago”. The violation of the vampire is thus a violation of its heterogeneity. Thomas reduces the vampire to a single set of symptoms and, as a result, completely misunderstands the polymorphism of vampires.

Thomas’s semiotic failure, his misreading of the vampire, promulgates an instructive misdiagnosis—catalepsy, a neurotic, melodramatic mental illness. This illness shades into a moral problem—catalepsy comes across as disobedience in the form of idleness; as Michel Foucault suggests, resistance to work being one of the great, inexcusable sins against the essential values of bourgeois society (2009, 502). While Marc proposes a more traditional approach to the madness of the sisters—that is, incarceration: “They’re crazy lunatics who should be locked up. You make me laugh with your trendy psychoanalysis”—Thomas seeks cure and is confident that he can bring the sisters into moral and social uniformity by means of persuasion. The cure, though, involves infantilising the sisters—Thomas posits forms of personhood and works on these as a type of raw material, seeking to shatter the sisters’ pretensions by means of ridicule: “you are not vampires … you don’t even bear all the marks”. He compels the “patients” to admit that their beliefs are simply the product of delusion: “I don’t know who tried to convince you you’re blind, but it’s part of some foul scheme.” This is done in the name of freedom, but as Foucault maintains, it becomes “simply a new form of regulation” (1976, 71).

The pièce de résistance is Thomas’s countering the melodramatic illness with an extraordinarily theatrical act: gathering up and burning all the crosses around the manor in a large bonfire. Cure in Le Viol obeys a logic of verschlimmbessern (making something worse in a misguided attempt to improve it). The cure is excessive and not only fails but defiles the entire equilibrium that held the vampires in check. In fact, Thomas’s attempt miscarries so badly that in developing a consensual loving relationship with Heliophobe he is infected with vampirism himself. The psychoanalytic experiment in The Rape of the Vampire is abandoned in the Vampire Women where there is a shift to seeking a medical antidote for an organic pathology. However, the treatment is again excessive—the Chief Assistant who willingly takes the antidote is killed by it. Her vampirism is cured, but at the expense of her life.

In attempting to prove to the sisters that the Cross and its influence is a mere superstition, Thomas inadvertently engages in a sacrilegious act. Brigitte looks on and delivers a prayer: “Most powerful God, you see your statue destroyed. Mystery pierced, the temple desecrated. The flight and the clamour of the helpless.” Although, shortly afterwards, Brigitte clearly disagrees with her husband: “I think Thomas is right, they are just poor unfortunate creatures”, in her prayer, she appears to conflate the viol (rape) of the vampire and the desecration of the cross. The effect is the flight and clamour of the helpless—a prophetic utterance, as it turns out, with the subsequent scattering and persecution of the sisters.

As the functionary who maintains the boundary—the threshold of crosses—beyond which neither the sisters nor the townspeople step, the Lord of the Manor acts as both servant of the Vampire Queen and warden of the sisters and townspeople. Once the crosses are destroyed, he addresses the townsmen: “He [Thomas] has freed the vampires … He’s a dangerous madman, he has destroyed the crosses. He is bringing misfortune down on us … One of the sisters has already been killed! Your wives and your children will be next.” The “us” here is inclusive—it embraces both sisters and townspeople; Thomas’s interference will destroy them all. The Lord of the Manor’s speech inciting the townsmen against Thomas operates to fulfil the prophecy concerning the ruination of the sisters. Brigitte is also killed in the mayhem, and it is ambiguous as to whether Marc’s shooting of Thomas is revenge for her death or an act of vampire killing.

The final two scenes of The Vampire Women again juxtapose Marc and Thomas. After another bout of turmoil and death at the blood wedding, they are among the few left standing. Here though, they are not directly confronting one another; rather, they emblematise two different responses to the tragic and the infinite. Thomas has reversed his position regarding vampires: “Such monsters don’t deserve any sympathy. I am one of them.” He has failed to find an antidote to vampirism and, mirroring the fate of the sixteenth-century Countess Erzsébet Báthory walls himself up in a cellar along with his lover: “Nothing of life can reach us now, no more contact with the living … we won’t be tempted to quench our thirst on others”. Thomas now literally occupies a liminal space between death and life. He has chosen it as a form of self-control, the very rudiments of vampiric personhood. However, this space provides no opportunity for personal development and neither for self-control in relation to others—his vampiredom is controlled simply by means of enclosure. In such a confined and isolated space, the only real question is that asked by Heliophobe: “How long will it be before we can truly die?”

Marc concludes the film occupying an alternative liminal space. Brigitte has, for the second time, been killed. Grief-stricken, Marc carries her lifeless body through the streets of Paris. He has no thought of revenge or vampire destruction, and his final words are a melodramatic monologue opening out onto madness:

I am the little boy who went to fish your scarf out of the sea. The presbytery has not lost its appeal, nor the garden its radiance, I can see it. I return to the radiating shadows of death. Many wise people would say that once you are dead, you are dead. They are convinced of it, congratulations. Congratulations. I wouldn’t disagree with them. They will talk about it tomorrow from the depths of their tombs. Dear, dear, dear Cordelia …

Like Thomas, Marc occupies a paradoxical space between death and life: those who talk “from the depths of their tombs”. 14 Taken as a mise en abyme for the film as a whole, the passage provides a set of themes that offer multiple ways in which a viewer can attempt to contextualise the work: discontinuity, “irrational” poetry, the theatre, behind or underneath the theatre, the monster, madness, loss, incomprehension. These sit neatly with the generic mixing I have been outlining.

Melodrama, James Donald suggests, responds to anxieties generated “by a frightening new world in which traditional patterns of moral authority have collapsed” (1992, 111). He argues that the Kantian idea of the sublime—the vast, the unnameable, that which threatens to overpower us—in fact confirms our status as rational or moral beings and allows us to deal with it: “the unreality, the excess and the irrationality are functional: they enable us to conceive the unpresentable” (1992, 111). Donald foregrounds the pedagogic function of the vampire—in dealing with classical narratives where human agency overcomes and defeats the vampire, our status as rational or moral beings is confirmed. In postmodern narratives, vampires themselves take on forms of rationality and morality (personhood) and consequently invite our identification as rational and moral agents. Le Viol du Vampire violates this pedagogic contract, and our essential points of rational human identification crumble in the face of the sublime: Brigitte dies twice; Thomas’s fate opens out to a living death; Marc’s—to madness. The film thus offers no place of personhood for the viewer; we are unable to confirm our rational or moral victory over the vampire either by defeating it and expelling it from our community, or by identifying with its rationality and morality. To violate the vampire is to violate ourselves.

Notes

  1. 1.

    On personhood, see Hirst and Woolley (1982, 118–139), where they seek to historicise and relativise contemporary Western conceptions such as self, selfhood, identity and subjectivity.

     
  2. 2.

    The film is also known as La Reine des Vampires (Queen of the Vampires).

     
  3. 3.

    “Heliophobe” means “fear of light”.

     
  4. 4.

    See Bourg (2007, 19–42), for a description of these events.

     
  5. 5.

    Strictly, Le Viol was not the first ever French vampire film/s (see Melton 1994, 262, for a very short list including well-established classics such as the serial Les Vampires, Feuillade 1914 and Et Mourir de Plaisir (Blood and Roses), Vadim 1960—albeit a French-Italian co-production filmed primarily at Cinecittá), but the paucity of French antecedents provides a certain contaminated veracity to the claim.

     
  6. 6.

    My summary description of the release and reception of the film draws on Dapena (2010, 230–233), Shipka (2011, 272–275).

     
  7. 7.

    The film trailer promises, among other things, “Les hallucinantes épousailles nues” (“The hallucinating naked nuptials”).

     
  8. 8.

    By 1968, black and white was an indicator of art cinema—Hammer had routinely been shooting horror films in colour since The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

     
  9. 9.

    At various stages in his career, Rollin would, for financial reasons, under the pseudonyms Michel Gentil and Robert Xavier, go on to make straight pornography films. Rollin’s pornographic works include among others Jeunes Filles Impudiques (Schoolgirl Hitchhikers) (1973), Bacchanales Sexuelles (1974), Hard Penetrations (1977) and Disco Sex (1978).

     
  10. 10.

    For an overview of melodramatic conventions, see Gledhill (2007).

     
  11. 11.

    See, for example, (Kate 2015; Newman n.d.; Spiegland 2013).

     
  12. 12.

    By no coincidence the blood wedding was filmed in the Grand Guignol theatre in the Pigalle district (Blumenstock 1995); from 1897 to 1962, the theatre famously specialised in amoral naturalistic horror shows.

     
  13. 13.

    The Doctor/lover of the Chief Assistant is the only significant character unaccounted for at the end of the film. Given his ambiguous status (it is unclear whether or not he is a vampire), he is thus emblematic of the “openness” of vampirism.

     
  14. 14.

    The passage is in fact a complex series of citations: Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms; the little boy is the Viscount Raoul de Chagny—the betrothed of Christine who was kidnapped by Erik, the Phantom of the Opera from Gaston Leroux’s eponymous serialised novel (1909–1910); Jacques Bens’s poem “The Presbytery Has Lost None of its Appeal” from his 1965 collection 41 Irrational Sonnets.

     

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Griffith UniversityNathanAustralia

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