Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Artful horror… The Iron Rose (1973)

There’s a moment in this curious film when the characters from Jean Rollin’s earlier films seem to visit the shoot. The two lovers are in a graveyard and, as night approaches, a clown* appears to lay a wreath whilst a tall vampiric nobleman enters into a tomb… both nods to Rollin’s previous film Requiem for a Vampire and other genre staples.

A special guest clown...
But this is possibly the film that people who don’t like Jean Rollin films might like… a gothic horror that relies almost totally on the psychological and not the physical. It plays like an art-house film in terms of the shot selection and a gentle narrative that sometimes leaves the actors adrift. It’s low on plot and, for a Rollin film surprisingly chaste: even when the central couple do get it on it’s only in the form of restrained petting.

Is the restraint deliberate or was the director playing as safe as he could to guarantee distribution?
That said, there’s plenty of the lovely Françoise Pascal on view late in the film to satisfy connoisseurs of seventies sex-kittens if not sexploitation… it’s all in the best possible taste.

Françoise Pascal on the beach...
Unsurprisingly, the story is taken from the poem by one Tristan Corbière – a proto-modernist who died tragically young from TB at just 29 (in 1875). This was adapted by Maurice Lemaître and Rollin himself who claimed to have added autobiographical elements.

Françoise Pascal
The film begins on a beach where a young woman (Pascal) enjoys a solitary stroll, smiling at her inner world and coming across a black metal rose. She cradles it for a while and then throws it back into the sea smiling… a foretaste of the mystery to come.

The story starts at a wedding where Pascal’s ballet dancer meets a young poet played by Hugues Quester. The wedding party is filmed naturalistically well by Rollin – you can almost believe that he hi-jacked a real one.

The wedding party... Boy meets Girl
His camera drifts around a run-down northern French town and then onto a partially disused railway yard where the two have agreed to meet. They play cat and mouse dancing around the various dormant locomotives: another foreshadowing, this time of the human graveyard to come.

Dead trains
As their day starts to close, the couple rest their cycles on the wall of a cemetery and walk inside to sample the atmosphere.

A walk in the park...
They find a grave with an iron door and clamber down inside to see what is entombed and to enjoy some privacy… After they make love they climb back out to find that dusk has almost descended.

They look for the way out but gradually come to realise that they’re lost and trapped inside. The tensions between the two starts to grow – the boy gets a little violent and the girl starts to be overcome by the presence of the dead.

After hours...
It’s hard to know exactly what is happening but the claustrophobia and dislocation will be familiar to anyone who has found themselves in the wrong dream at the wrong time… You’re unsure where the threat will come from and Rollin demonstrates some considerable restraint in keeping what threat there is in the minds of the two living protagonists.

Hugues Quester in a spin.
The two have a fairly violent fight that, again, appears to act as a foretaste of future events: yet you worry for the girl who is physically outmatched by her boy…

The Girl comes across a grave with the metal rose we saw at the beginning drifts into her beach-bound reverie: this was not someone looking back in happiness but ready to surrender to the darker side of her nature.

I won’t give anything more away as this is one to watch, especially if you like your horror gothic rather than graphic.

Both the leads are superb with Hugues Quester the rational poet who refuses to be overcome with superstition.  Françoise Pascal – who many in the UK might remember from the sit-com, Mind Your Language, is a revelation here and holds much of the film’s horrific intent internally. Her acting is subtle and never over-worked… no screaming or hysterics, just the gentle calm of the truly spell-bound.

Rollin directs with aplomb, choosing some cost-effectively eerie settings and making the most of the landscape and the light. All is underpinned by a suitably jarring and very Floydian experimental score from Pierre Raph (les Français adore le Pink Floyd!).

Dusty verdict: Well worth grabbing on DVD – available here – if you fancy the kind of horror that accumulates rather than overwhelms. Pascal’s excellence makes up for some pacing issues in the latter half.

*That is indeed Mireille Dargent who also dressed as a clown in Requiem… Rollin’s way of saying you’re not getting what you’re expecting? Well, just a little…


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