It’s time for a Jean-luc Godard review, but where as I struggled with exactly what I should say in regards to Breathless, partially because it seems one of the most written-about films this side of Zombie Lake (which seems to be one of the most reviewed movies on the internet), when it comes to Band of Outsiders, my problem is with having too much to say. So we’ll start with the so-called general consensus: Band of Outsiders is Godard for people who don’t much care for Godard. Considered by some to be one of Godard’s lighter films because it is more accessible and less maverick in its approach, Band of Outsiders still offers up a fine example of the French maverick at his best, and the fact that he doesn’t imitate himself should be an example of Band of Outsiders‘ inventiveness rather than the other way around. Missing from the film, for the most part, are Godard’s signature jump cuts and unsteady camera. In their place is one of his more conventional and straight-forward narratives. But don’t let the surface simplicity of the film trick you. This is still Godard, and this is still the French New Wave. There’s a lot boiling under the surface even if it’s not as expressly obvious as in Breathless and the director’s other, better known, and more celebrated works.
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial effort on his part, although, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with the man. In my review of Death Trip, the fourth Kommissar X film, I described how Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserted himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes.
If I rack my brain, I can come up with an English language corollary by which to describe Fantomas. But that doesn’t change my perception that there is something irreducibly French about the character. Certainly, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is similar, in that he is one of those rare examples of a villain serving as the central figure and driving force behind a popular series. But, while Fu Manchu’s representation was that of a monstrous “other”, playing on the racial anxieties of the age in which he was created, Fantomas seems more like a personification of the id unleashed. As such, he engages his audience in fantasies of a life lived without borders or moral constraints, with the traditional heroes and cops-and-robbers aspects of the stories serving to house those fantasies within a socially acceptable context. It’s as if Bataille or De Sade had chosen to couch their transgressive works within the format of a dime detective novel.
France Gall might not have had the sophisticated mystique of Francoise Hardy, the it girl “oomph” of Sylvie Vartan, or the continental sensuality of Bardot, but she was nonetheless an integral part of the Yeh Yeh Girl pantheon. It could even be said that her young age — 15 at the time of signing her first recording contract — made her the most accurate reflection of that uniquely French musical movement’s teeny bopper audience. As such, she presented a guileless naiveté that perhaps made her an ideal blank slate upon which some of France’s best professional songwriters could project their pop fantasies — the most well known of those being Gall “family friend” Serge Gainsbourg. Because, really, who better to entrust your teenage daughter’s fortunes to than Serge Gainsbourg?
When Teleport City reviewed the French science fiction animated feature Gandahar, we delved into the history of French sci-fi in animated and comic form, including the birth of Metal Hurlant, the comic magazine that, when it was licensed for publication in America, became Heavy Metal. Tackling Luc “The Destroyer of French Cinema” Besson’s whimsical fantasy-adventure The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec allows us to continue our meandering history lesson on French comics and comics magazines. Adele Blanc-sec is an adaptation of a comic strip of the same name, which appeared in Pilote — coincidentally, the magazine that served as an incubator for the writers and artists (including Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, and Enki Bilal) who would leave it in the 1970s to launch Metal Hurlant. Pilote was founded by two writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artist, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard. The four of them worked previously on comics supplements to newspapers as well as providing strips for magazines. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix le Gaulois, a humorous strip about a village of Dark Ages Gauls was Pilote’s biggest hit in the early days and served as the foundation on which the magazine was built. The magazine boasted a number of other popular series, too, such as Blueberry, Barbe-Rouge, and Valerian et Laureline.
Born as I was in the early days of the 1970s, I am by law required to identify myself as part of the Star Wars generation. And to some degree I suppose that’s accurate. I’m not going to try and retcon myself into some cool iconoclast who hated Star Wars when he was five years old. I loved it. Saw it in the theaters, saw it at the drive-in, saw it more times than I care to count at my friend’s house when it finally came out on VHS. But Star Wars was not the sole reflection of my science fiction tastes. I started in on sci-fi at a very young age, exposed pre-concrete-memories to a lot of trippy hippy sci-fi freaks — the benefits of growing up with parents who were still in college. Neither of my parents were full-on hippies. My mom was a bookworm with hippy tendencies but too much anger, and my dad was basically one of those easy-going jock stoner types with a taste for Uriah Heep. So I was around a lot of college weirdos, some of whom helped invent stuff like Dungeons & Dragons, and some of whom played football or were on the swim team back from that strange era when even athletes had long hair and Fu Manchu mustaches and lava lamps. I was a kid obsessed with comic books superheroes, robots, ray guns, and Ultraman. I “read” a lot of old sci-fi comics as well, or read them as much as any three-year-old can, which is to say I looked at them and drooled. But I guess the crazy covers and artwork were the sort of colorful eye-candy to me that Teletubbies or Yo Gabba are to modern children. All things considered, I prefer my version.
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
My viewing of Zombie Lake was one of those events that lead you to question everything in your life that has lead up to it. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was a “where did I go wrong” moment, because many of the choices that brought me to it couldn’t in themselves be considered mistakes. Nonetheless, when you get to the point where you see watching Zombie Lake as some kind of solemn obligation, it’s a circumstance that bares some investigation. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, amidst all the questioning of how and why, I also found myself asking if there was not some way that all of this could have been avoided.
What with my recent cinematic diet consisting mostly of overheated Bollywood masala movies and plagiarism-filled Thai man-in-suit monster sagas, I’ve gotten well past the point where it’s time to mix things up a bit. And what better respite than to watch some attractive French people screwing and languorously declaiming about the futility of it all? Granted, that isn’t an entirely accurate description of Slogan; For one, the attractive person in that scenario is Jane Birkin, who is British, while the French one is Serge Gainsbourg, who once famously summed up his position on ugliness by saying that he preferred it to beauty because it endured. Still, there’s no hint of either Amitabh Bachchan, Turkish people in ill-fitting superhero costumes, or latex creatures of any kind within miles of this picture, which is all that I’m really asking for.
Much has been said about Serge Gainsbourg in his roles as songwriting genius, pop music provocateur, archetypal seedy Frenchman, and guy who told Whitney Houston he wanted to do her on national television, but very little has been said about his career as a support player in European B movies. How could this be? After all, long before he made his mark on the French pop scene in the mid-sixties, Gainsbourg had paid the bills by both scoring and appearing in a string of films, a number of which were well within the purview of a site like Teleport City. These included a pair of Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Brad Harris Samson films, which were made before both Parolini and Harris moved on to the Kommissar X series. Both these and the earlier peplum Revolt of the Slaves put Gainsbourg’s somewhat ferret-y looks to good use, playing up the more sinister aspects of his physical demeanor in a series of juicy villain roles. Gainsbourg would also contribute to the Eurospy genre with his appearance in one of the Roger Hanin “Tiger” films (which he also scored), Carre de Dames pour Un As.
Of course, by the time of starring in Slogan in 1969, Gainsbourg had become an established figure in the French pop music scene, having written hit songs for such stars as France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Petula Clark and Brigitte Bardot, as well as making a dent in the charts on his own with solo recordings of classics like “Qui est In Qui est Out”. As such, Slogan, unlike those earlier meal-tickets, shows all the signs of having been built around Gainsbourg’s by this time well established persona. As a result we get the extravagantly dissolute 40 year old pop maverick Serge Gainsbourg starring as extravagantly dissolute 40 year old advertising maverick Serge Faberge, who embarks upon an ill-fated affair with Evelyne, an 18 year old British model played by then 22 year old British actress Jane Birkin. Slogan, in fact, plays out very much like one of Gainsbourg’s songs from the period: Sexy and stylish on the surface and loaded with sly pop culture references, but at its heart a melancholy rumination on mortality and loss.
However, whatever the intentions behind Slogan might have been at the time, when watching the film today, they tend to get overshadowed by events that we now know were taking place behind the scenes: namely that Birkin and Gainsbourg were making a love connection that would result in one of pop’s most iconic romances. Birkin was still a relative newcomer at the time, having made her initial splash in 1966 with Antonioni’s Blow-up, a film in which she appeared only briefly but also very nakedly. Long-limbed, lank-haired and coltish, with an ethereal blue-eyed gaze, Birkin so embodied a certain aspect of the late 60s aesthetic that some of her early films seemed to use her as more of a design element than an actress. As legend has it, Birkin, curious about her aloof costar, finagled a dinner invitation which lead to a long night of clubbing in Paris — including stops at a transvestite bar and a club where American bluesman Joe Turner was playing — that ended with the hard drinking Gainsbourg passing out in his hotel room.
As inauspicious as it may sound, that night would mark the beginning of a passionate love affair that, over the course of its twelve year duration, would not only produce two children (the actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg being one of them) but also provide the spark for a number of dazzling pop artifacts. As an initial volley, the newly formed Birkin/Gainsbourg union announced their love to the world with what would become one of Gainsbourg’s biggest and most notorious international hits, the duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot had begged him not to release it for fear that the track might jeopardize her marriage. The final version, which featured Birkin very convincingly feigning orgasm while Gainsbourg mutter/crooned phrases such as “Physical love is a dead end”, would go on to directly influence Donna Summer’s disco breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” and cement Gainsbourg’s undying reputation as the dirty old man of French pop.
Obviously one of the more fruitful muse/mentor relationships of its type, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s affair would also serve as the impetus for, among other things, Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson and his directing debut, a 1976 feature also titled Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus that starred Birkin in the lead role. The pair would also continue to star together on screen, even returning to Serge’s Eurotrash cinema roots for Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye — a film that, despite having a title that’s as giallo as all get-out, was in reality just an underwhelming gothic thriller.
So knowing all of this today, it’s difficult to watch Slogan without losing sight of its tale of an ill-advised affair between two shallow and self-absorbed characters for all of the romantic sparks, both actual and perceived, that we see flying between its stars. And, while Slogan is far from a terrible film on its own merits, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it distracts us from just how insufferably annoying those characters are. Gainsbourg’s Serge Faberge is a work-obsessed, habitual womanizer in the throes of a midlife crisis gone nuclear who, being also a married man with a baby on the way, employs all of the deceptions, both of himself and others, that such a combination of traits requires. Birkin’s Evelyne, on the other hand, is insecure, needy and destructively impulsive, and, when she’s not simply seducing the camera with her very Birkin-ness, prone to sulking and shrill tantrums made even less tolerable by a French accent that’s clangy even to a non-speaker.
Despite whatever flaws can be found in Gainsbourg and Birkin’s performances, it cannot be said that they aren’t courageous or lacking in vanity. This is especially true in Gainsbourg’s case, as the age difference between Faberge and Evelyne (and by extension between he and Birkin) and its implications are far from glossed over, and in fact are repeatedly highlighted as a symptom of Faberge’s benighted struggle with his impending mortality. Gainsbourg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his character, which is remarkable, given that the chain-smoking, coolly detached exterior that this frightened and confused man hides behind is so nearly indistinguishable from his own public persona. As a result, those scenes in which Gainsbourg/Faberge morosely obsesses over his growing paunch, or sheepishly tells his pregnant wife lies that you can tell he’s desperately trying to believe himself, are more than a little uncomfortable to watch, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to Gainsbourg’s integrity as a performer.
At Slogan‘s outset, Faberge meets the young Evelyne by chance while in Venice to accept an advertising award — an occasion which he has already used as an opportunity for a pre-arranged extramarital tryst with another young model. At first, all is laughing strolls and romantic montages set to a fantastically lush and swirling Gainsbourg score, but soon Evelyne, either too naive or too self involved to truly take Faberge’s measure, wants more. Not surprisingly, Faberge is put off by her sudden demands for commitment. You’d expect that he’d be happy to be rid of her at this point, but when Evelyne runs back to England and announces plans to marry the fiancé she previously ditched for Faberge, Faberge follows and brings her back to Paris. At this time, as at others, it seems that Faberge is continuing the relationship more out of obstinacy than anything else, wanting to prove to his wife, his friends and, most importantly, himself that it’s one based on authentic, deep feelings rather than merely his own desperate clinging to youth.
Faberge eventually separates from his wife and moves into an apartment with Evelyne, where, after a brief honeymoon period, the lovers’ bickering begins to escalate. Meanwhile, Faberge has won a lucrative advertising contract with Shell Oil (about as naked a symbol of brute American capital as you could place within this context) and, despite his announced intention to begin work on a “real movie”, his subsequent preoccupation with the campaign drives a further wedge between them. Finally, with a year come and gone, Serge and Evelyne return to Venice for another award ceremony, only to encounter that natural enemy of cradle-robbing old men everywhere: studly young Italian boys.
Throughout Slogan there are scenes of Faberge meeting with his colleagues and clients in which the advertising industry’s — and, by extension, the culture at large’s — obsession with youth is given ample play (“The youngsters will buy it” is a constantly heard refrain). And this wouldn’t be a sixties film if there weren’t some none-too-subtle ironic juxtapositions of televised war and disaster footage for all of that to play out against. In this context, the adman serves as an especially insidious representation of the establishment, as his goal is to decode the language of youth in order to exploit if for his own commercial gain. Given that, it’s possible that Serge’s humiliation at the hands of youth is meant as some type of poetic justice. But positioning Serge Gainsbourg as “The Man” simply doesn’t work here because, well… he’s Serge Gainsbourg. Regardless of how old — or ugly — he is, the man is just too cool to stand in for the calcified values of his generation.
This is another aspect of Slogan that may be undermined by the obvious romantic chemistry between its stars. The age difference, because it is explicitly acknowledged up front, actually becomes less of a problem, especially since Gainsbourg, gnomic, jug-eared and clean shaven as he is (it was reportedly Birkin who encouraged the perpetual three-day stubble), has enough of the mischievous boy about him to make the connection between the two seem credible. Finally, the film (which, by the way, includes among its three writers Melvin Van Peebles!) can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to punish the character Faberge or celebrate the icon Gainsbourg. All of those combined self-inflicted losses that we might expect to leave Faberge reeling at the film’s conclusion instead appear to have left him unchanged, and as the credits roll, he’s slyly chatting up a new sweet young thing, much as we might expect Gainsbourg’s more id-driven alter ego, Gainsbarre, to do. Then again, this might be another one of those disservices done to Slogan by hindsight, as, at this point, its impossible to look at Birkin and Gainsbourg and see anything but Birkin and Gainsbourg, and hence impossible to see Slogan at all clearly as the film that it was initially intended to be.
To the extent that it concerns people who are obsessed with surfaces, Slogan is also a movie about things, and, as such, it contains enough dome-topped, modular and polychromatic plastic appliances and fixtures to fuel a retro-fetishist’s fever dreams for years to come. Faberge’s office and the apartment he shares with Evelyne in particular look like they could have been inhabited by characters from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. Both director Pierre Grimblat and cinematographer Claude Beusoleil do a nice job of contrasting these sterile modern surfaces with the timeworn beauty of Venice featured in those scenes at the films opening and close, accentuating on one hand the sense of tragic romance at the film’s core and, on the other, its depiction of the manufactured distances that people place between one another.
While many of Slogan‘s no doubt modest intentions may have become obscured by the imposing backward reaching shadows cast by its stars and their legacies, it still provides an illuminating snapshot of one particular aspect of its cultural moment. By that I refer to the collective mid-life crisis that, as the sixties crept into the seventies, seemed to effect an entire generation of middle-aged and middle-class adults who, finding themselves abandoned outright by the youth obsessed commercial culture of their time, began to embrace a sort of neutered version of the hippy counterculture, free of all the utopian idealism and leftist political rhetoric, but with all of its hedonism and obsession with self-actualization intact, leading to some of the most stomach turning excesses of 1970s “adult” culture. This way lay wife-swapping fondue parties, porno chic, EST and Mike Brady’s perm, and I believe that, after Serge Gainsbourg, we wouldn’t see a man in his forties adopt a remotely swinging persona without looking like a complete dork until the arrival on the scene of George Clooney many years later. So savor the moment, people.
If you are interested in good music, sixties European style, attractive people, sexy romance, or just really enjoy watching people smoking cigarettes, there are so many reasons to see Slogan that for me to evaluate it as a film using the conventional standards seems completely beside the point. While it’s certainly an engaging and stylish little movie, there’s little doubt that it would even be available for our consideration today if not for its two stars and the particular place that it holds in their legend. As such, it comes to us more as an artifact of a specific time and place than as something to be experienced on its own terms. Fortunately, that time and place is — to me, at least — a particularly magical one, making Slogan a worthy object of fascination regardless of how successful it might have been in achieving its goals.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: France | Starring: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Andrea Parisy, Daniel Gelin, Henri-Jacques Huet, Juliet Berto, Pierre Doris, Marie-Christine Boulard, Gilles Millinaire, James Mitchell, Kate Barry | Writers: Francis Girod, Pierre Grimblat, Melvin Van Peebles | Director: Pierre Grimblat | Cinematographer: Claude Beausoleil | Music: Serge Gainsbourg | Producer: Francis Girod
“Dreams and life — it’s the same thing, or else it’s not worth living.” — Baptiste, Jean Rollin’s Les Enfants du Paradis
From time to time, I notice there are certain directors whose films I undeniably love yet always preface a positive review of with some manner of disclaimer along the lines of “not for everyone” or “you have to be in the right mind.” More times than not, the director to which I’m referring is Jess Franco. However, this largely reflexive defensiveness could just as easily find itself employed in the shielding French director Jean Rollin. But I’m not going to fall back on any of that today, or any other day from here on out until I forget that I’ve just made this proclamation. I’m a big boy, after all, and its time to embrace my love of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and any other thoroughly cockeyed Eurocult director without any caveats or attempts to justify my love out of some ill-conceived sense of guilt that, because of some glowing review I might write of Blue Rita or La Vampire Nue, someone is going to go out and watch those movie and then wonder what the hell is going on. But really, that’s not something of which I should be ashamed of or feel guilty over, is it? Because if more people were watching Diamonds of Kilimanjaro or Shivers of the Vampire, then that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it? Provided you think the right direction is mod Euro starlets constantly taking off their clothes during psychedelic stripteases performed to crazy jazz music in some club decorated with pop art sensibilities on overdrive — and you all know that’s my vision of a perfect world. Also, I would be able to fly and turn invisible, and anything I carry is also invisible if I want it to be. And I am immortal.
I went through a couple decades and then some having never even heard of Jean Rollin. It wasn’t until Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ book Immoral Tales that I heard mention of Rollin’s name. While the description of Rollin’s films seemed interesting, it was the smattering of stills that really entranced me, and not just because they were frequently of unclothed women. They were also of unclothed men. Because, you know, the French and all. Unfortunately, my new knowledge of Jean Rollin was not accompanied by an ability to actually see any of the movies about which I was reading. At the time, pretty much the only source for Jean Rollin films was Video Search of Miami, and having once ordered a video from them, I knew to never do it again. But then I noticed whilst browsing the videos at a local establishment that they had a couple Rollin films of dubious legality and questionable reproduction quality, but whatever. It only cost a buck-fifty for the rental, so I picked up a little something called Raisins de la Mort. Raisins of Death? That didn’t sound too scary, even if the California Raisins sort of creeped me out. But it was also a zombie film, and up until very recently, when a long line of horrible shot on video zombie films did me in, I could never pass up a zombie film.
Then came the DVD explosion, and thanks to Redemption Video, a whole slew of Rollin films found their way into my collection and, it goes without saying, into my heart. Because, you know, the French and passion and all that. I learned a few things about Rollin, chief among them that the first of his films that I’d seen was not really typical of his output, which often revolved around vacant-eyed vampire girls in mod mini-dresses, when they had anything on at all. By comparison, Raisins de la Mort was almost an actual film. Most of the time, Rollin shot his films with the intent of achieving a surreal, logic-defying atmosphere. He also tended to shoot with almost no money, only amateur actors, and usually no script. The end results were often…complex…to digest. Rollin’s first film, La Viol du Vampire, was made more or less on a whim by Rollin and a group of enthusiastic horror film fans. It was never meant to be much more than a fan film, and Rollin’s goal was to pack a small theater with friends and friends of friends and have a fun night. As fate would have it, France happened to be in the middle of a slew of crazy demonstrations and riots, meaning that Rollin’s little homemade experimental art-horror film was one of the only new films theater owners could get their hands on. And thus, Rollin found himself with an actual release on his hands — albeit a poorly received release. Parisians may have been looking for a revolution in 1968, but not the one Rollin’s film offered them.
But Jean Rollin continued unphased. After all, he never intended for his film to be embraced by a wide audience. Rollin had been raised by artist and, as a child, surrounded by luminaries and lunatics from the fringe of the art world, including a number of Surrealists. Their vision of art obviously informed Rollin’s eventual work, and his repertoire is comprised largely of films that concentrate heavily on dreamy imagery, hallucinatory surrealism, and general weirdness. Sacrificed in the fray were things like logic, scripts, plot — little things like that. European cult film directors have often been criticized for shuffling these things to the back burner, just as they’ve been praised for their ability to create amazing imagery and mood. I’m torn, since on the one hand, I like scripts and plots and feel that film is a medium in which so many aspects of art — imagery, music, writing — must come together. On the other hand, I really like a lot of these relatively plotless movies, and I have a tremendous capacity for extracting meaning from apparent meaningless. That’s what you learn, kids, if you take film classes and work as a journalist who interviews both politicians and movie stars.
But that’s a discussion for a different Rollin film, because we’re here today to discuss one of his more accessible films, though it certainly has its fair share of Rollin’s signature oddity. Compared to most of his work, though, Grapes of Death, as it is known this week, is positively comprehensible and well-planned.
For many of the cult film fans who might be familiar with Jean Rollin without being Jean Rollin fans, it’s probably because of his infamous zombie film, Zombie Lake. The Internet certainly doesn’t lack for coverage of this masterpiece of complete and utter incompetence, and lord knows I’ve done my part. The big difference between Rollin’s usual bizarre output and Zombie Lake is that Zombie Lake is pretty much indefensible. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Zombie Lake. I might even watch it again tonight, but the incompetence on display there is purely born of a complete and total lack of interest in making a good movie, and not from some desire to make a weird, arty film. Given the reputation of Zombie Lake, which in turn has informed the opinion of many people who don’t know Rollin for anything but Zombie Lake, delving once again into the rich, creamy lather of a Jean Rollin directed zombie film would seem…well, about as enticing as doing anything involving rich, creamy lather other than getting a good shave with a straight razor and dollop of heated shaving cream.
And while Grapes of Death may not be quite as satisfying as a good shave delivered by a talented barber who smells of menthol blended with spices and lower woodsy notes, it’s still a heck of a lot better than Zombie Lake, and just as Rollin doesn’t deserve to be judged purely on the “merits” of Zombie Lake, neither does Grapes of Death deserve to be off-handedly dismissed and placed at the same low level as that green-faced Nazi zombie opus.
Grapes of Death is an episodic series of events following Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), who finds herself on the run after she and her friend are attacked on a train by a young man who seems well on the way to having his face fall off. It turns out, we learn, that an experimental pesticide has contaminated the grapes used to make wine, thus turning much of France into — well, not exactly zombies, but close enough, especially in this post 28 Days Later era when the definition of zombie has been somewhat blurred. Rollin’s zombies showcase certain obvious characteristics of zombies as defined by the George Romero movies that have become more or less the de facto zombie rule handbook. Some of them shamble aimlessly about with their arms in awkward positions. They like to bite people. And their bodies and faces tend to decay and fester with oozing boils. But they also like to stab people with pitchforks, brandish torches, travel at a relaxed jog, and prepare dinner. Depending on the state of the infection, some people seem completely gone into a flesh-hungry zombie state, and some are still able to talk and even feel guilt and remorse over what they are being compelled by the infection to do.
Elizabeth wanders a bleak French countryside, encountering infected people from time to time and screaming in fear. Occasionally, she also meets uninfected people, but she still usually finds reason to scream in fear, since those people often end up on the wrong end of some bladed farm implement wielded by a grinning ghoul. Grapes of Death takes the unique approach of eschewing the standard “hunker down in a house and argue with each other as the living dead amass outside” for a much more freewheeling and wide open approach. Elizabeth spends most of her time outdoors in wide-open spaces. She is, at these times, relatively safe. It is only when she ventures into the closed quarters of homes or walled medieval style farm towns that the trouble begins, and the confined spaces always work against her. She eventually meet two uninfected farmers who avoided the infection because, although it is very un-French of them, they prefer beer over wine. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to change once she meets up with these blue collar salts of the earth, but a rather large coincidence brings her into contact with her boyfriend (who we’ve never seen until he shows up at the end of the movie), and since things never end well for people in a zombie film…well, you get the picture.
In a crowded field of zombie films that tend to be largely identical to one another, few stand out. Those that do either accomplish this because they invented or are so good at executing the well-worn formula, or they have found some way to provide a unique twist on expectations while still conforming to certain expectations. Grapes of Death falls into the latter category. It is basically a zombie film, but it’s not like other zombie films. It’s open instead of confined; the zombies are cognoscente of their descent into murderous bloodlust, even if they are helpless to stop it; and although the film has plenty of gore (and gratuitous nudity), the scares come not from any sort of visceral punch but rather from the eerie atmosphere Rollin creates. The desolate French countryside Rollin uses as his location is at once familiar and strangely alien. What we expect of idyllic rolling hills and quaint old villages is subverted as soon as the oozy-foreheaded crazies start prowling about. Similarly, Rollin keeps seasoned viewers of zombie films off balance by delivering something other than what you expect, at least some of the time. And where as many zombie films, especially recent ones, rely on pumped up adrenaline and action, Grapes of Death meanders aimlessly across the French countryside at the same pace as its confused protagonist.
Coming out in 1978, Rollin’s pseudo-zombie dream was one of the earliest European attempts to mimic George Romero’s hugely influential Dawn of the Dead, though in tone and approach, Grapes of Dead has more in common with Jorge Grau’s oft short-changed 1974 zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Both films share a pastoral rural setting turned sinister with experimental pest control methods being the culprit behind the madness. But Grau’s zombies are most definitely the living dead, where as Rollin’s zombies have more in common with creations from another George Romero film, 1973′s The Crazies. In fact, if I had to pick one film that was the most likely influence on Grapes of Death, it would be The Crazies, which is the tale of a small town that becomes infected with a virus that turns people into murderous nutjobs. Where Grapes of Death differs significantly from Romero’s film is in the mood. Romero, a former director of industrial and instructional films, has always been a largely clinical director, injecting a sense of matter of fact reason into fantastic events through his reserved direction. Rollin, on the other hand, allows the bizarre events of his film to dictate the atmosphere. Thus, while both films take place in somewhat foreboding, winterly rural locations, Rollin’s looks much more like something out of a fevered nightmare. In addition to the ragged countryside, punctuated by strangely shaped rock formations and mist, Rollin makes excellent use of crumbling old walled towns. Everywhere is a palpable sense of decay.
Both The Crazies and Grapes of Death inform the basic premise of more current films, like 28 Days Later, though whether or not those films played much role in influencing 28 Days Later is something I do not know. And of course, that movie takes yet another very different approach to the same basic premise.
Then there’s the trance-like electronic music score, minimalist and reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Composer Phillipe Sissman only has this and one other work to his credit, and even here he doesn’t contribute much more than one weird synth theme that is used to remarkably good effect. It clashes with the natural setting around it, and with the decrepit, lived-in look of the film’s overgrown villages, but it works perfectly with the hypnotic mood of the film. It helps communicate the idea that something is not quite right.
Rollin’s film depends largely on young Marie-Georges Pascal, who like many of Rollin’s actors, was minimally experienced at the time. She appeared in a number of erotic films with titles like I Am Frigid…Why? and Hot and Naked. Although Grapes of Death is a great leap forward for her, nothing really ever came of it. In 1985, with her film career having gone nowhere, she committed suicide. Her eventual fate lends an additional level of melancholy to the film, especially given the downhearted ending. It’s obvious she has some talent, though, as she manages to create an interesting character even though she (like everyone else) has minimal dialog and spends an inordinate amount of time screaming as she witnesses one horror or another. It’s the simple everyman (or everywoman) quality that endears her to the viewer. Plus, she rarely does things that are completely and incomprehensibly stupid just so she can move the plot along. I guess that’s one of the benefits of not having much of a plot.
Supporting her are a cast largely unrecognizable to me, as like most Americans, if it isn’t Gerard Depardieu being flustered or Jean Reno punching someone, I don’t know many French actors. Some of them, like the two beer-loving guys who come to Elizabeth’s rescue, are experienced actors. But the only real familiar face to me is Brigitte Lahaie, the French porn star turned Jean Rollin muse. She appeared in many of his films and acted as sort of a muse, in much the same way Soledad Miranda (and later Lina Romay) did for Jess Franco. She has a small part here, as a woman who befriends Elizabeth (or so it would seem) and gives her protection from a town full of crazies. Of course, I’d always like to see more of her, but that’s what films like Fascination are for. She did star in one more of Rollin’s variations on the zombie theme, 1980′s strange Night of the Hunted, in which France is afflicted with mass memory loss and hysteria, causing Brigitte to have to wander around nude a lot for some reason I’ve never fully comprehended but am never the less happy to accept.
Grapes of Death may not be exactly what people expect from a zombie film, and even if it is Rollin’s most accessible and straightforward narrative, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely heavily on weirdness and surrealism. I personally find it thoroughly hypnotic and imaginative. Especially after watching so many poorly-made carbon copy zombie films of late, it’s refreshing to return to something this unique. A year later, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie would come out and pretty much define the European (by then, almost exclusively Italian) zombie film for the next…well, to this very day. Fulci works in much the same way as Rollin and considers many of the same things important — the creepy atmosphere; the construction of striking, haunting imagery; the sense of decay generated by moody locations; and of course the disregard for strong scriptwriting. But Rollin is much more lyrical in his approach, and even though Grapes of Death has plenty of goo and gore (it was one of the very first — possibly the very first — French gore film), there is something decidedly different about it. If Lucio Fulci is the Chang Cheh of zombie films — all visceral punches and testosterone — then Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death is like something from Chu Yuan. Poetic, dreamy, perhaps feminine in a way, even when naked women are being beheaded or run through with pitchforks.
It’s a shame that Zombie Lake, the movie that was too crappy even for Jess Franco, remains the best known Jean Rollin film. Most of his movies remained unseen for years, and even their initial releases played to scarcely more than a smattering of people. Grapes of Death is one of my favorite zombie films, or whatever those sort-of zombie, crazy bleeding people are called. I can, and often do, watch this and many other Rollin films over and over. Sometimes I may only half pay attention to them, like albums playing in the background, but keeping them in the corner of your eye or at the periphery of your consciousness suits them well. Of course, I also like sitting down and paying attention to them, as I think many (but not all) of his films are quite rewarding. If you are as tired as I am of movies where a group of strangers board up the windows and yell at each other for 75 minutes until the zombies bust in and eat everyone, Grapes of Death might be the remedy you’re looking for. I recommend you view it with a nice, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon.