Sunday, 19 July 2020

Dancing in the dark... Fascination (1979)

Jean Rollin, as with Jess Franco, made films that could transcend the simple requirements of exploitation. They are, as his title here acknowledges, fascinating to the extent that they maintain interest beyond the base desire to witness pretty young women in softly pornographic and invariably sapphic subplots – all of which can become so much technical box-ticking in the wrong hands. No, here there’s a mystery mood, unease and uncertainty of outcome and a long shaggy dog narrative that reveals all and yet, doesn’t quiet, give everything away.

Rollin may have a formula but his chief achievement is establishing that atmosphere as we as his sense of horrific timing and recognition of the delayed “gratification” this genre requires to maintain uncanny interest and the hope of escape for most doomed of characters. Sometimes you’re not sure who to identify with and sometimes, there just isn’t anyone you can, but here again he plays audience expectations around expected roles and outcomes.

Jean-Pierre Lemaire takes charge?
Take for example our leading man, Marc (Jean-Pierre Lemaire), thief and alpha male, who escapes from another group of thieves and seeks refuge at a mysterious chateau. Marc is an adventurer but will he be an anti-hero for our sympathy or an abuser of the two chambermaids he finds living there? These women are brunette Elizabeth (Franca Maï) and blonde Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) who are in a relationship, yet welcome this man, especially eager Eva who makes him as welcome as she can.

The mannered sex scene between Eva and Marc mirrors another between her and Elizabeth, the former more aggressive than the latter, reinforcing the idea of Marc’s energy over-running the odd household. But the women have a deeper agenda, they wish to shelter him from the group of thieves pursuing him in order to retrieve their ill-gotten goods but also keep him at the house for reasons unspecified.

One against four seems about fair...
The gang catch up with Marc and approach the chateau to force a confrontation but instead of Marc they get Eva. The gang leader (Myriam Watteau) appears to humiliate Eva and she is locked up in the stables, although Elizabeth tells Marc that she has them exactly where she wants them… And so it proves as when one of the gang tries to rape Eva she kills him with a concealed knife before, in the film’s most iconic sequence, finishing of the rest with a scythe: The Glam Reaper, death is a partially dressed blonde bombshell walking across an ancient bridge cutting through the deserving!

So, Marc is saved and it appears that he has won the heart of Elizabeth who, as with Eva, clearly swings both ways (sorry…) but a greater tension soon begins to build as they tell him to stay overnight rather than carry on with his journey to sell his stolen goods. Some important guests are due to arrive and they tell Marc that this will be a special evening in ways to intrigue his over-confident masculinity.

Swingers' party
Even when a group of beautiful women arrive led by Hélène the Marchioness (Fanny Magier), and including Anita (Muriel Montosse), Sylvie (Sophie Noël), Dominique (Evelyne Thomas) and Agnès (Agnès Bert). Marc still does not feel threatened even though, as we look around at the group there’s clearly something unhealthy on the cards.

Again, Rollin holds the revelations in check in order to maximise the ebb and flow of threat and relief. Marc joins in the party and seems, at one point, to be winning a battel of wills with the Marchioness as they play games of domination waiting for the big event at the midnight hour…

What’ll it be? A demon, vampires, or something even more sinister? I can’t really tell you but I’m sure you’ll be just so fascinated to find out…

Fanny Magier
Dusty verdict: Fascination is slow at times but there’s a relentlessness about the eerie journey it makes. Any additional interpretations are purely there to support the suspense and I really doubt if there’s a feminist take on this, just another plug in to audience perceptions of hero and distressed damsels or which, here at least, there are very few.

The acting is variable and Jean-Pierre Lemaire does well as the token male whilst Fanny Magier has nuanced grace as the leader of this uncanny group of women. Franca Maï is also convincing as the conflicted Elizabeth and whilst Brigitte Lahaie may not have the subtlest of approaches as an actress, she knows how to swing a scythe!

I also liked the title sequence in which the two dance on the chateau's bridge next to an old gramophone. A nice touch that foreshadows what is to come very well.

Engrossingly unsettling, Fascination is one of Rollins’ best and is now available on Blu-ray so you can savour your favourite scenes…

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