Jean Rollin’s “THE IRON ROSE” (1973) – Garden of Sex and Death

 

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*This review contains spoilers*

I am always trying to get people to watch Jean Rollin’s films. Unfortunately he, like Jess Franco, often gets dismissed as a maker of artsy sleaze. While understandable, I think this is an unfair assessment of both men’s work. I find that while most are familiar with Rollin’s vampire films – and the awful ZOMBIE LAKE – THE IRON ROSE is the one film they usually have not seen. I think it solidifies Rollin as a singular visual filmmaker.

THE IRON ROSE is different from all of Rollin’s other films. There are no lesbian vampires with ridiculous fangs or laughable Nazi zombies. The story is simple and loose. The dialogue is sparse. It is the imagery that makes THE IRON ROSE stand out – more than a story about a couple getting lost in a cemetery, it’s Rollin’s fever-dream version of the Garden of Eden.

Everything in THE IRON ROSE is pared down to the most basic elements. The two main characters don’t even refer to each other by name until late in the film. Rollin prefers to tell his story through scenery, body language, and facial expressions. He uses lighting and camera angles to create an unsettled, moody atmosphere indicative of the characters’ unraveling and turning on each other.

Rollin’s characters often cross boundaries from reality into bizarre otherworlds. THE IRON ROSE opens with The Girl (Françoise Pascal) walking alone along a rocky beach flanked with rows of wood pylons and a high cliff wall. She finds a wrought iron rose in the surf and tosses it back; an exchange with eternity. The Girl is then seen emerging from mist-shrouded woods into a clearing. Even during the wedding reception, where she meets The Guy (Hugue Quester), she is separate. She doesn’t engage with – or seem noticed by – anyone but him.

Rollin sets up his Garden of Eden theme by contrasting images of a decaying town, with its post-war-damaged buildings and an empty rusting train yard, against the sprawling cemetery overgrown with trees and weeds. The couple wander deeper down the paths. Pascal, of course, is more reluctant and seems deeply affected by the graves and the crucifixes. Quester is more of a realist and claims not to believe in anything after death. Maurice LeMâitre wrote the dialogue, which is scarce and centered mostly around Pascal’s increasing fascination with the dead.

While the couple is the main focus of the film, Rollin does add a few interesting cameos from his previous works. We see a vampire (Michel Delesalle) and a clown (Mireille Dargent), both from REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE. Rollin even shows up as a creepy guy in a dirty yellow robe who leers at Pascal. There is also an old lady in black (Natalie Perrey, LIPS OF BLOOD) who wanders the cemetery, putting flowers on the graves.

The couple finds an open underground crypt and have sex. When they come out, it is night and they have to try to find their way out of the cemetery, which becomes a huge maze. Every time they think they’ve found the front gate, they have only found yet another section. The lighting is low and distant, and the gravestones and crucifixes seem to glare down at the couple. Their fear gets the best of them and turn against each other, becoming violent at times.

Rollin spends a lot of camera time on Pascal, whose beauty is both sensual  and fragile. As the film progresses, she appears to be seduced by voices only she hears. She tries to convince Quester that they should stay in the cemetery; that only among the dead can they truly live. He is alternately afraid of and fascinated by her.  They have sex again in an open grave (atop bones and skulls) while the camera spins around them.

Pascal finds the iron rose in the hand of a stone angel and uses it to lure Quester back to the original crypt.  She locks him inside and begins a weird dance through the cemetery as he begs her to let him out. As day breaks, she opens the crypt and lowers herself into it, stating: “You are all dead. We are alive.” Rollin’s rejection of a world that can corrupt and decay in exchange for a crystal palace of eternity is complete.

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