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Lips of Blood (Lèvres de sang, 1975)

Jean Rollin

France

88 min, color, French (English subtitles)

Review © 2005 Branislav L. Slantchev

Many consider Lips of Blood to be one of the best Rollin films but it is hard to see why. Although not without its attractions, the film feels a bit hollow, and in the end falls flat because of something that Rollin is typically at pains to avoid: logic. Yes, you heard me, the problem with this film is that it makes too much sense. The narrative is too linear, and this only highlights all the holes in the script. Had Rollin kept to his time-tested extraordinary gift for the surreal, the film would have been much better. As it is, we only have his keen visual style to go by, and at least this helps just enough to keep me coming back to the film.

Burying the living Frederic + amorous women (Beccarie, Grimaud)

This outing should be familiar territory for Rollin fans. It's got vampires, it's got nudity, and it's got great visuals that manipulate the low-budget limitations of the production to such great effect that one can almost believe that it was all done on purpose. I was also quite partial to the musical score that is quite essential for the film with its minimalist dialogue. The nudity is quite restrained by Rollin and European exploitation cinema standards, and the violence is mostly symbolic: no rapes and whatever bloodletting there is, is all with a discrete bleeding from the lips. The film is basically as innocent as its ending.

The kiss that Frederic remembers The cinema showing 'The Nude Vampire'

The film opens with an old woman and two men putting obviously alive people wrapped in white into coffins in some unnamed crypt somewhere in Paris. Some time later, Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) is at a party where his attention is inexplicably drawn to a poster on the wall. The photograph is of an old ruined castle, and Frederic suddenly remembers an event from his past. When he was a boy, he wandered into these ruins and met an enigmatic lady (Annie Brilland) who invited him inside and let him spend the night there. Unfortunately, that's all that he can recall, his memory being hazy ever since he lost his father. He tries to remember more, but is distracted first by an amorous girl, and then, in a very Oedipal moment, by his mother who denies ever having seen the ruins.

Jennifer beckons Frederic in the cinema The mute Annie Brilland

Frederic can sense that something important must have happened there and that it is somehow connected to his identity, his long-lost love for that mysterious girl. He resolves to find the castle and tracks down the photographer who had taken the picture. However, as he makes his way to the meeting with her, he is drawn into a cinema (showing Rollin's Naked Vampire) and there the apparition appears again, visible only to him. She beckons him and he follows her into a cemetery, and finally down to the crypt from the opening scene, where he awakens four female vampires; two of whom are modestly attired (the Castel twins), and two who enjoy frolicking in their birth suits.

The Castel twins at night Characteristically surreal and minimalist

Frederic runs out only to be accosted by a strange woman claiming to be the real-life version of his vision. It is obvious that she is lying but he follows her anyway in an attempt to find out why she is trying to deflect him from his search and who sent her. The vampires rescue him from that woman and kill her before he can figure out what's going on. Suddenly obstacles are everywhere: the photographer is murdered before she can reveal the location, and the killer almost shoots Frederic although he somewhat inexplicably dallies just long enough for the vampires to save Frederic again. It is obvious that whoever is after him is not trying to harm him but just frighten him enough to cause him to give up. But the vampires want him to go on, and so he does.

Committed to the tender vampire care Marie-Pierre and Catherine Castel are funny

Eventually, his mother gets committed to an asylum but the vampires spring him again. After an odd encounter with a blind man selling postcards, Frederic finally finds out where the castle is and wastes no time getting there. The mystery then reveals itself in a fairly predictable fashion. The beautiful woman turns out to be a vampire by the name of Jennifer, and the four girls are her minions roaming the night (and sometimes the day, contrary to their supposed inability to do so). When Frederic has to sacrifice Jennifer, he cannot find the strength and instead succumbs to her charms, sharing her fate in the end.

Diaphanous robes floating in the wind The vampires roam the ruins

As I said, the linearity of the plot undermines the whole symbolism of memories as defining one's person. I guess in some way the idea was to have Frederic being an empty vessel, a nobody whose forgotten childhood has deprived of an identity. He comes across as a bland man who is only invigorated when he can touch his past. He spurns the advances of at least three women, two of them throwing themselves at him totally naked. He quarrels with his mother and repudiates that artificial childhood that she has created for him after he lost his memory. Even as the four vampire girls are trying to get him to return to the castle and unlock their master, he is on a quest of his own: it is not simplistic curiosity that goads him on, it is a matter of survival.

Anita Berglund about to meet her fate... ...at the end of pointy phallic stick

This profoundly lonely journey he must take despite all the obstacles that others will throw in his path. It is quite typical for Rollin that the vampires are also portrayed as these ephemeral lonely creatures with deep sadness in their eyes. They both lust after blood but seem to find no joy in killing. It is as if they crave companionship more than blood but can't help themselves. In perhaps the most memorable scene in this film, the Castel twins are impaled by a boorish man. They die as they had wandered the nights: in a tight embrace, and in resignation. Frederic has to struggle by himself too even though he gets some help along the way: although the vampires can point him in the right direction, he is the one who has to make the journey.

The Castel twins impaled as one Frederic pretends to have beheaded Jennifer

When he awakens Jennifer, she tells him that she could not appear to him until he remembered her. In other words, his memories will give her apparition the strength to become visible to him. To put it in a more straightforward way, his memories give meaning to his love. Without them, there is no connection. And even if they are always "there" in some sense, if one cannot drag them out from oblivion, one is as good as dead. Frederic relinquishes his life as a mortal to share his future with Jennifer. Their love-making on the beach leads to her biting him, and next morning they symbolically die to this world by entering a coffin, and then setting themselves afloat in search of serendipity. In giving up this world, they have gained eternity with each other.

Looking into the future Taking their leave of this world

The Redemption DVD is quite nice and is the way to own this film. Although not anamorphic, the letterboxed picture is nearly free of pixellation, and the sound does justice to the strange soundtrack. There is very little dialogue in the film, so the visuals are what make it happen.

November 3, 2005