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Dracula's Fiancée

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La fiancée de Dracula
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Directed by: 
Jean Rollin
Cyrille Iste
Jacques Orth
Denis Tallaron
Sandrine Thoquet
Brigitte Lahaie
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The distinctive cinema of Jean Rollin, although clearly in debt to the pop culture influences of early youth, has nevertheless always been founded on the unwavering, unique personal vision of this most unusual of "indie" directors, who from the beginning found himself at odds with the 'intellectualism" of his New Wave peers of the late Sixties. Although more than willing to draw on the popular lore that had gradually accreted, both in book and film, around the concept of the Vampire ever since the initial publication of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula", Rollin has nevertheless built up a mythic fantasy world that is entirely his own, reliant on a recognisable set of recurring visual tropes drawn from a wide variety of sources: an often pastoral mise-en-scène decked in verdant country chateaux and the ruined remains of obscure castles, ancient cemeteries, windswept beaches, a tenuous romantic poetry of the night; while at its heart, a languid, almost detached eroticism thrives, which Rollin often has coexisting alongside a dark, nebulous atmosphere in which innocence is doomed and memory is lost: it's a style which found its apotheosis in his quiet and disturbing feature, "Fascination".
So, the very idea of someone else's fictional creation -- Stoker's character of Dracula in this case -- intruding into this precise, detailed and very particular world, seems to threaten to destabilise a finely balanced composition of elements which, as it stands, is often precariously poised on the delicate knife-edge between jejune pantomime and stylised surrealism. There is always the danger that the Rollin phantasmagoria of court jesters, nuns, clowns, pirates and, of course, wispy female vampire lovers who make up the inhabitants of this imagined netherworld, could become inhibited by ironical self-reflexivity once one is forced to acknowledge its obvious artificiality by a shoehorning-in of the good Count -- with all the wider, inescapable cultural baggage that inevitably comes with him.
In fact, it turns out to make very little difference: whey-faced Byronic gentlemen vampires in Regency frills and foppish cloaks have always made up a strong component of this world in films like "Demoniacs" and "Requiem for the Vampire", existing quite nicely alongside all the other Gothic fairy tale elements of a typical Rollin film. The Dracula of "Dracula's Fiancee" isn't fundamentally any different from any of these other pale-faced, saturnine characters. The costume looks like it might have been bought for a fancy dress party, but then a lot of the characters in Rollin's films often do! Take away any reference in the script to the name 'Dracula', though, and you wouldn't find the actual storyline very much different in nature to any number of the director's delicate, non-linear, dreamlike fables of sex and death.
This late entry, in fact, turns out to be one of his most successful outings for some time, explicitly referencing past movies, but also recapturing that escapist, childlike quality from early works, "Shiver of the Vampire" and "Requiem for a Vampire". Structured as a picaresque journey through a bizarre parallel world of mythic, mystical creatures, Rollin had made this film a mad jamboree of surreal strangeness, which after the rather subdued and stilted "Two Orphan Vampires" is a welcome reminder of what has previously made the work of this director so essential to the connoisseur of weird cinema; in an age where many modern indie film-makers seem happy to use technology -- which has made it easier than ever for anyone to express themselves in the medium -- simply to churn out the same old unimaginative jokey splatter rubbish, Rollin's low budget art should be an instructive case to all.
The film begins at night in a crumbly mist-shrouded cemetery which an unnamed professor (Jacques Orth) -- a bearded Van Helsing-like character in steel-rimmed glasses and fedora -- is staking out alongside his floppy-fringed young accomplice, Eric (Denis Tallaron). In a sequence which is, of course, very reminiscent of a similar major episode in Stoker's novel, the two watch as a misty, red-haired female figure in diaphanous white gown (Sandrine Thoquet) materialises and enters the grounds, accompanied by a dwarf, who, it transpires, is in love with this vampiric undead beauty (and you can't blame him, since this is one of Rollin's most attractive on-screen vampires for some years). It seems the two vampire hunters are on a much bigger quest than simply to stake this one fanged female, though: they're following the trail left by "parallels" -- shadowy denizens of an irrational underworld who are aiming to resurrect their 'master' Dracula with the help of the one known as the Queen of Shadows. The dwarf, Thibault (Thomas Smith), agrees to give them the next piece of the jigsaw, if they'll spare his vampire beloved (whose busy writhing about naked on a stone tomb by this time), and soon the intrepid two wind up at the ruins of the Tower of the Damned, presided over by a childlike young woman (Magalie Madison) who seems lost in a rambling revere, though her madness may be only the visible sign of her access to much deeper truths: "maybe a thousand adventures take place in their wandering minds," says the Professor of such apparently lost deluded souls.
The idiot woman sends them on to a town house known as the Presbytery. It is here that the Queen of Shadows resides, held prisoner by a group of nuns known as the Sisters of the Order of the White Virgin, all of whom, it appears, have been infected by madness from keeping such constant close proximity to their prisoner. This 'Queen' seems to be a madwoman called Isabelle (Cyrille Iste) who talks only in riddle-like poetic aphorisms that appear quite nonsensical, though once again, the Professor insists "all madness has a hidden coherence, invisible to the eyes of normal people". There is certainly plenty of madness in the Presbytery: the nuns wander the ornately furnished rooms and corridors playing childlike skipping games, Isabelle's two giggling 'guards' smoke a calabash pipe and a cigar each, and the Professor and Eric are surprised to see two sisters sensuously French kissing each-other. It appears that Isabelle is to become Dracula's bride, in the process returning him from the realm of myth and back into the living world. The professor hypnotises Isabelle so that she will lead Eric and he to the site where the marriage ritual which will bring Dracula back to life is to be held. By this time, young Eric has fallen in love her. His journey now takes him and the professor into a strange world of otherness, full of surreal happenings and odd creatures who take a human guise.
Rollin's films have always been very dialogue heavy and narrative light, the story often providing only the slenderest of connective threads joining one surreal image or sequence to the next. This was never more so the case than with this film, which is rich in suggestive poetic language and ideas that totter on the abyss of the absurd, but are only the more effective because of it. The professor and Eric (who is one of those blank young modern men dressed in jeans and a Ben Sherman Leather jacket, who sometimes turn up in Rollin's universe -- most notably so in "Lips of Blood": apparently modish fellows who yet long for a meaning beyond the everyday order of life) wander amid increasingly strange scenes, encountering a cave-dwelling ogress who takes the form of a tattooed woman in a cocktail dress, eating a baby from its crib ("just another bite; he's so tender and delicious!"); a horse-riding she-wolf (the still beguilingly beautiful Brigitte Lahaie in a vivid red dress); and two strange old characters who look like they belong in a silent-era German expressionist film, so caked are they in theatrical make-up. Strange things happen (a nun is murdered but then returns as an undead being still clutching her own beating heart, which she tosses into a fire). Haunting locations appear (a Satanic ritual in a floodlit courtyard, Isabelle tied to a stake at that evocative beach landscape that appears in almost every Rollin film), and Rollin is not averse to direct references to his past films, such as the grandfather clock that doubles as a vampire's coffin. And beautiful looking women regularly shed their clothes! The tone varies wildly between dreamy poeticism and a kind of semi humorous strangeness, though some traditional Rollin fans may find it all just a bit too busy at times; so much is crammed in that the film doesn't have that same sense of languid drowsiness as older works, and it's always moving hurriedly from one bizarre set-piece to the next. Nevertheless, this is much better than one would have expected from the now rather elderly statesman of the fantastique. Rollin's muse here seems as energetic and as lively as it ever has been. Long may it continue to flourish.
This film is -- for once -- presented in a pleasingly clear anamorphic transfer, something that always seems still to be a rarity for Redemption titles. The disc features the same twenty minute interview with Jean Rollin as appeared on the recent release of "Two Orphan Vampires", and there are trailers for other Redemption titles also included.  


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