Sunday, 30 August 2015

Blood simple, blood strange… La Vampire Nue (1970)

Jean Rollin was a master at creating atmosphere – from Francoise Pascal’s dream to murder in The Iron Rose (1973) and the escape of the schoolgirl clowns in Requiem for a Vampire (1971), he put his, mostly female, leads through some very odd encounters and years on from viewing, that visceral feeling endures.

Of course, sometimes budget sometimes gets in the way of ambition and this is in evidence right from the opening moments of this film when people gather in laboratory wearing strange masks that somehow fail to menace… But, he was still learning his trade when this was made and, a certain rawness aside; it achieves much of what the above films do.

Strange shadows
La Vampire Nue (English translation rather clumsily The Nude Vampire) was written and produced by Rollin in 1970, his second film and his first in colour.  It shows traces of the 1963 Georges Franju demi-classic Judex, itself influenced by the genre-defining silent serial from Louis Feuillade in 1914, secret societies, animal masks, mysteries that just roll along from episode to unexplained episode. There’s an improvisational feel and a sense of an unwinnable battle – just what you need to propel an ongoing serial.
NHS cuts really take hold as Trust runs out of gowns...
Here Rollin has an end on mind and is adding his own surreal touches to make a mood piece that comes close but never matches his better works. But it is unique and sometimes baffling cinema – the question of the “vampire’s” nudity being the least of the issues. There is splendid use of location from an eerie night chase through urban walkways to a huge stately home – oppressive exterior and interior - and finally to the director’s favourite beach (a frequent destination for family holidays and as seen also in The Iron Rose).

Caroline Cartier
It all adds up to a disturbance especially once the director has thrown in a quota of strangely subdued violence – the impact of bullets and bodies never seems entirely real – and, of course, female sexual presence: erotic dancing, an artist’s model who seems far too mobile to be painted, the barely-clothed Castel twins and the titular vampire – the stunningly well-proportioned Caroline Cartier. The members of the cult wear masks to avoid being seen by this vampire and yet she is revealed to the full for the audiences’ gaze: surely Jean was trying to tell us something?

Essential to the plot...
The film starts with that weird blood test as a naked woman is examined by hooded medics. She is then seen escaping from the complex and is pursued by men in animal masks through shadowy streets. During the chase she encounters a young man Pierre (Olivier Rollin – the director’s step-brother) and takes an instant fancy… The two run but are trapped on a railway bridge, the woman faints and is carried away whilst Pierre climbs to freedom.

Pierre meets the Woman
He follows the men as they carry the woman to a gated house where smart-suited guests start to arrive – he steals a ticket to gain entry. Once inside he witnesses the strangest kind of party… the elegant guests playing collective Russian roulette with the “winner” gladly shooting themselves. As they lie still warm, the woman descends the stairs to feast on their blood: the naked vampire discretely swathed in a gossamer wrap…

Party fears too...
Pierre is the next lucky winner and he chooses a different path, shooting the compare and making good his escape…

Cut to a nightclub in which three middle aged men watch an aggressive erotic dance from Ly Lestrong. The eldest, Voringe (Bernard Musson) looks nervous , the tallest, Fredor (Jean Aron) leers awkwardly whilst the man ion the centre, Georges Radamante (Maurice Lemaitre) enjoys every second without restraint.

We next see Pierre in his flat where he is being aided by the weird sisters Castel (Marie-Pierre who was also in Requiem and Catherine) who endure all kinds of wardrobe discomfort for Rollin’s art… It turns out that Pierre’s father is the gleeful ogler and that he’s heavily involved in the strange cult of the nude vampire.
Catherine Castel, Olivier Rollin and Marie-Pierre Castel (I think...)
Pierre wants answers and enlists his pal Robert (Pascal Fardoulis) – the painter of the over-excited model – to search the premises of an office block owned by Georges. They find pictures of the woman and rooms full of researchers and then it’s hoods on as the nude vampire is escorted along a corridor… She recognises Pierre and all heck breaks loose as the boys are caught red-hooded!

Lucky dip?
Pierre is interviewed by his father who assures him that all will be revealed and that things are – clearly – not quite as they seem…

Pierre cofronts Georges
Now the action shifts up a gear as the men head off to a secret base – I love secret bases! – in a chateau whilst Georges’ right-hand woman, Solange (the elegant Ursule Pauly) disposes of Robert and we know that the society is playing winner takes all.

Ursule Pauly is Solange
Pierre follows and encounters the Grandmaster (Michel Delahaye) a figure who seems to know what’s really going on… really!

Georges’ society believes that the woman is a vampire and that she can lead them to the secret of immortality but she may be something more and far from alone.

The Grandmaster confronts the Society...
As the rich men huddle in their country retreat the Grandmaster’s forces gather to attack and rescue the woman. Pierre is stuck in the middle as true loyalties are revealed and the startling actuality emerges from behind a curtain on a distant beach…

The attack
Dusty verdict: La Vampire Nue is absorbing in spite of the occasional clunky moment. The performances are very committed with Delahaye, Lemaitre and Ursule Pauly being especially impressive.

Topless terror!
It benefits greatly from an unsettling soundtrack from Yvon Gerault, which grinds along impressively with the action: reflecting the alienation, displacement and fear of the characters… whilst cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon helping Rollin realise those intense atmospherics.

Open the box...
The story is slightly ahead of itself and, as if in recognition, Rollin has Radamante’s two colleagues walking away at the end neatly summarising what has gone before and the outstanding plot questions. Truth is, the plot was always secondary for Rollin and what he wants more than anything is for the film to engage his audience: to make us feel different.

La Vampire Nue is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Loan a gunman? The Parallax View (1974)

Warren Beatty

What’s the link between the Kennedy Assassination and Thor God of Thunder?

Writer Alan Moore once described superheroes as revenge fantasies for the impotent and here Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation is used as part of a visual conditioning process for potential assassins. Multiple images flash on the screen following words like Father, Love, Country and Enemy. At first the images are pleasant ones but they gradually become more graphic and disturbing as the positive words are mixed with negative images and the God of Thunder makes increasingly frequent appearances: urging the watcher to be your own hero and to take action.

It’s a remarkable sequence some minutes long and must be quite disorientating in cinema, as the watchers of the watcher are subjected to the visceral impact of so much conflicting stimuli over such a short period time: agitation and disruption to a murderous degree.

Infiltration and revenge...
At a time of so much deliberate super heroic audience stimuli this connection seems even more sinister: customer conditioning for economic gain which some take too far. In The Parallax View it’s a means of tapping into people’s inner psychotic; inducing a revenger-rage string enough for them to kill selected targets that they can be persuaded are attacking with American values.

But the organisation running this process isn’t necessarily political – they will rent out their lone gunmen for hire to the highest bidder: capitalism in action a practical solution provider for power struggles across the political spectrum their targets never clearly identified as democrat or republican.

Hume Cronyn and Warren Beatty
Director Alan J. Pakula is careful not to present his main character as a straightforward hero;  Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) is a journalist driven by his own ego perhaps but he doesn’t want a Pulitzer; just the truth. A reformed alcoholic he has obviously struggled to conform but follows his instincts.

Beatty plays Frady with narrow-band emoting and whilst this adds to the relentless  narrative drive it doesn’t give us much time to examine the man: there are no extended bedside sequences and the only relationship Frady can just about sustain is with his long-suffering editor.

The dam blows... as does the boat.
Frady can handle himself, besting a corrupt cop in a lengthy bar brawl, out-lasting another as a dam burst flood carries them down a ravine and even preventing a bomb destroying an aircraft. Tellingly, when the bomb does explode on the empty grounded plane, Pakula doesn’t show it – we just hear it.

Pakula’s action is almost this incidental and the superb cinematography of Gordon Willis plays a major part in setting the characters against pre-dominant exterior locations – the Seattle space needle, concrete cityscapes and huge assembly halls. It’s as if the action is almost buried by reality as if the audience could see it outside the theatre if they looked long and hard enough. Frady’s conversation with his editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn) often start with lengthy shots of Bill’s office, stuck in the corner of the newspaper’s news desk like an Edmund Hoper night scene, two figures dimly-lit and, literally, part of a bigger picture.

Paula Prentiss
The film starts off with cinéma vérité news reporting of a senator’s visit to the Space Needle. Paula Prentiss plays Lee Carter a nervy news reporter covering the event and interviewing the senator’s slick aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels). The action moves to the Needle where Frady tries to blag his way into the party by claiming he’s with Lee but she denies the link even though her interest is piqued by his audacity and well-maintained hair.

The meet and greet that follows is almost matter of fact and Pakula lulls his audience into a false sense of security almost tot eh last seconds before the assassin strikes. The killing is seen behind the glass as Lee talks further with Tucker. There’s a desperate scramble as security chase down the killer who eventually falls to his death… he clearly wasn’t acting alone but no one else sees that.

There follows an audacious shot of the official panel reporting their conclusions – they are shown in long shot un-touchable and – literally – unquestionable: this is a statement and not a Q&A.

Lee looks for help...
A few years pass, and Lee appears at Frady’s apartment: by now former lovers, he obviously couldn’t commit to her anxious nature. Now she’s frightened for her life and claiming that six of those present at the assassination have now died under mysterious circumstances. Frady dismisses this – he’s given up his own conspiracy investigation – and tries to re-assure Lee. Cut to Lee’s body in the morgue as Frady realises that something is indeed afoot.

He starts to investigate – in spite of his editor’s long-suffering indifference and gains valuable evidence from a corrupt Sherriff (Kelly Thorsden) which points to a company called Parallax and a psychometric test he learns is designed to identify potential psychotics.

With help he fakes appropriate results and proceeds to infiltrate Parallax… but this is a deadly game and the conspiracy runs deep.

Dusty Verdict:  The Parallax View epitomises the paranoia of the time and, indeed, modern cinema – the difference being that Pakula and others actually hoped something could be done… and they were certainly angry and not resigned. This was something new – post noir betrayals – rather than a simple plot device.

Warren Beatty is superbly controlled and leads an excellent cast whilst Pakula directs with the same assurance he demonstrated in 1971’s Klute. The Parallax View’s reputation seems to grow with every passing year and it will do until we can be sure that we’re not just paranoid and that, yes, they really are out to get us.

 The film is available very reasonably-priced from Amazon.