When I head the news late on Wednesday evening, the 15th December, that film director and writer Jean Rollin had died due to complications brought on by pneumonia I felt a mixture of disbelief, something I often feel when I hear that someone I care for has died, and inevitability that the ill health that had plagued Jean throughout the nearly twenty years that I had known him had finally caught up with him. Ten minutes later it was all smiles again as I was informed that Jean hadn’t in fact died but that a museum curator with the same name had, and that Jean was alive and well. I decided to call Jean in the morning knowing that he would be amused by these untimely reports of his death. Sadly the initial reports proved to be true and Jean Rollin and his unique take on the vampire myth had gone forever.
I first met Jean around the time I formed Redemption Films, 1992/1993, when having seen a selection of fabulous photographs from his films in the book Vampire Cinema by David Pirie I was amazed to discover his films just weren’t available on video anywhere in the world. I remember as well the sense of disbelief with which those who had seen Rollin’s work greeted the news that I was planning on releasing Rollin’s films commercially.
They felt that it was wrong, that people wouldn’t understand Rollin’s films, that they might laugh at them or mock Rollin and his vision. What these people really meant was that they enjoyed Rollin’s obscurity and basked in a kind of elitist glory that only they and their selected associates had access to Rollin’s strange and unique world. Rollin on the other hand was delighted that his films were finally to be released commercially.
Up to that point I hadn’t met him and when he came to London, aged I guess about 53 or 54, he seemed older and frailer than I thought he would be, and certainly not what I expected. Not that I had an image in my mind of what Jean should be like, but the reality was quiet, not particularly friendly and to my mind a bit straight but nevertheless he was OK and he was Jean Rollin! From that point I met him in Paris, with my then girl friend Eileen Daly, at Cannes, in London and so on, and slowly got to know him.
I can’t say that ours was the easiest of relationships, it wasn’t and at times it was almost war. Jean always needed money and I never had any and from that premise we somehow forged a relationship that saw, painfully and often through litigation, Redemption slowly acquire the copyright and ownership of most of Jean’s films and in doing I got to know Jean as man and eventually as a good acquaintance which occasionally tipped into friendship.
I liked seeing Jean happy, and hated it when necessity on his part or our part, brought in lawyers and threats, and what made Jean happy was pretty women. I can’t remember why but sometime around 2004 or 2005 we had a Bulgarian girl helping out in the office whose main accomplishments seemed to be her beauty, her figure and the fact that she wore very little in the way of clothing. She also got on remarkably well with Jean on the phone. So as we had decided to film some interviews with Jean and were also in discussions to acquire another package of his films we decided to bring Jean over to London .
This was also one of those happy periods when Redemption had some money in the bank and we were able to put Jean up at the very stylish and posh Charlotte Street Hotel whose English breakfasts Jean loved. As he was in London for a few days I decided to entrust Jean’s well being to our delightful Bulgarian and, shoving a load of expenses money into her paw, sent her off to meet Jean in her best non-clothes, clothes. Her mission to accompany Jean and show him the sights of London and to generally look after him. Later I took him to dinner to meet up with the highly exotic Dr Patricia McCormack, who had previously interviewed Jean in Paris for us and our then publication Rule Satannia, and I can honestly say that in all the time I have known Jean I had never seen him look as happy as he did during that visit.
Yet aside from brief moments of happiness Jean to my mind was a tortured soul and a true artist, driven by the need to work, to be pursuing, and creating his artistic vision, regardless of what others thought of the results. For Rollin the sadness was that, like so many film makers and artists, he never had enough money and that, aside for a brief period in the seventies, he spent his time pursuing his dream rather than creating it.
Yet he never stopped working, writing vampire book after vampire book, writing his autobiography and in his last years making two more films, Night of the Clocks and Masque of Medusa, which features a rare appearance by his charming wife Simone. Night of the Clocks was intended to be his swansong, and when I first read his original script it was like reading his epitaph. Centred as it was on a an old chateau where a young women finds fragments of films and strange objects and slowly they build up into telling the story of the previous occupier, a film director. These objects and film fragments were his ghost, his memory, his life. The film as originally written was beautiful and its a shame to my mind that the budget restraints imposed on the actual film never allowed it to be the goodbye it could have been.
Yet still Jean worked on and following a successful heart operation he really seemed to have a new lease of life, making yet another film, The Masque of Medusa, which has real moments of Rollin magic within it.
The one film Jean and I talked about making though was George Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Bataille’s transgressive, shocking, savage and overtly sexual assault on Catholism. Discussing it Jean’s eyes would light up and at the time (about 2006/7) he had befriended and worked with the French feminist philosopher and pornographic star Ovidie, and I often wondered if he intended for her to be in his version of the Eye? But like so many of his later projects it wasn’t to be.
What was to be though was Jean’s amazing body of work, and his vision of the vampire, of women, of the twin, of death, of colour, flesh, love and ultimately of Jean Rollin himself. A director and artist who was perhaps his own worst enemy, and who, had he stepped back occasionally and taken some advice might have achieved the commercial success and recognition he so longed for. As it is he died loved by his fans but unknown to the wider world and if ever there was a man who deserves to become famous in death its Jean, for to leave his work languishing in obscurity, would be to leave it to the few to paw over all over again and he would hate that.
Here’s hoping that the angels are serving you a good breakfast in whatever dream you’re in now.
Jean Rollin 1938 – 2010
Rest in peace.