Saturday, February 7, 2009

Les Raisins de la mort - The Grapes Of Death (Jean Rollin, 1978)

A glass a day keeps the doctor away...

A cautionary, metaphoric film of deceptions about the destructs of alcoholism -- spread throughout a society and culture, ironically, via the very fruit from which the desired libation is drawn.

Jean Rollin is a Gallic director who emerged, full to form, simultaneously with the rumblings of the cultural and cinematic revolutions in late 1960’s France.

For international cinema, and Rollin in particular, this was an age of raw creative expression and experimentation with film language --

-- an age that acted as a playground for Rollin's offbeat tastes and talents.

Les Raisins de la mort, a film made ten years past these events --

-- in a far more commercially-minded and cinematically conservative age -- concerns Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) --

-- a young woman traveling by train to see her boyfriend, Michael, a winery operator in Roubelais.

From this simple idea, Rollin constructs a mystery of mounting deceptions, duplicity and transformations.

The first, assumptive transformation is that grapes transform into wine --

Grapes have no immediate toxicity but, in their aged liquidity, become toxic and ultimately, those that consume (in this case) wine in daily quantity take on an eventual physical and mental transformation.

At the story's outset, a creeping rot has spread through the Roubelais vineyard and the grapes have become blighted.

Rollin adds the super-natural element of pesticide as a metaphoric aide and convenient horror-genre convention.

Michael is illegally spraying his own "homemade" pesticides on the grapes without properly informing his unprotected illegal immigrant employees about the potential hazards of the toxins they are forced to use.

The pesticide transforms the wine into a harbinger of a sort of plague --

-- one that instantly corrodes the mind (and flesh) of those that drink it and transforms them into near-mindless animals obsessed with the urge to kill.

A witty exaggeration -- sometimes, perhaps not such an exaggeration -- of the natural effects of alcohol, in and of itself.

However, there are those infected that can appear rotting in mind and body --

-- and there are those whose mental and physical deterioration can be hidden --

-- that is, until it is too late for individuals who have momentarily abstained from drink to escape the néo-zombies eventual de-evolutionary murderous rampage.

There are even those whose physical condition remains intact while their psychopathia develops into a state of homicidal arrogance --

-- allowing them the delusion of coherent, though insane, thought --

-- cloaked in the illusion of sanity and physical perfection.

Even Rollin’s visual style is a deception/transformation. Once a pop-surrealist steeped in Jungian colors --

-- funereal locations --

-- mordant antiquarian objets d’art --

-- Magritte-inspired/Druillet-drenched tableaux --

-- young women in creative states of dress and undress --

-- here Rollin employs a seemingly straight-forward, unadorned rural French landscape not unlike Claude Chabrol -- utilizing natural light sources and a subdued color palette.

Even the usually playful psych-tinged, prog-rock combo scores of his early films have metamorphed here into synthesized, faux-Philip Glass compositions --

-- employed, not to comfortably signal an impending danger to the audience or augment a mounting suspense sequence in an effort to “involve” them in the shock and horror of what the main character is forced to both witness and experience; instead, it’s design is one of a rapid rotational series of tones -- hypnotic in their ceaseless repetition -- music that takes the viewer off-guard at the most crucial moments of surprise, especially when complimented with contrasting stretches of natural silence.

Rollin further illustrates the decade-long transformation of his directorial style by using Élisabeth's own prolonged transformation into the film's most complex, dignified, and compassionate zombie as metaphor for his own conformity to a new era of (outwardly less personal) commercial filmmaking.

From the minute Élisabeth takes that fateful first sip, Rollin foreshadows and signifies her own prolonged transformation by providing sly visual clues --

-- such as framing her with her own reflection --

-- this mirrors the way Rollin photographs those afflicted in advanced stages of infection --

-- a visual pun on his monsters dual and dueling personalities. He also, ever-so-subtly, hints at his heroine's eventual succumbing to the effects of the tainted vino by showing how she applies an increasing use of violence to survive --

-- whereas earlier, at the outset of this crisis, she had found it just as easy to simply run away from her immediate dangers.

Rollin masters this deception by introducing a trait unique to his particular brand of zombie: a tormented awareness of transformation --

-- a physically and emotionally painful battle within oneself --

-- the conscious understanding of involuntarily giving in to passionate, near-erotic murderous urges --

-- and a clear regret at the abandonment of will. Élisabeth, herself, displays these very emotions in the many close-up reaction shots Rollin affords her throughout the film. (see examples above and below)

It is as if she were watching, in others savage actions, the same terrible, helpless evil that is now gestating inside her. It's a complex and duplicitous subjectivity on display --

-- one that the viewer is never certain about until the very final frames of the film. (see last photo sequence at bottom)

These accumulating deceptions/transformations lead us to (and substantiate) the film’s core moment of extremity; as always, the moment we Destructible Men exist for -- or -- as the French would call, the pièce de résistance:

In a small, cobblestone village, Élisabeth stumbles upon Lucy, a blind girl –

-- already physically one step in the direction of the fantastic with her bright, pleading, white marbleized eyes –

-- as she feels her way around a rural French country town looking for her guide, Lucas (Rollin’s “humanization” of a seeing-eye-dog).

Little does she know that the quietly menacing townspeople, never kind to her affliction in the first place, are actually transforming into frothing, rabid zombie-like murderers all around her.

Cue her adoring friend Lucas, who shows his love like any zombie-plague ridden Frenchman would --

-- he promptly strips her nude and nails her to a door for all to see.

Élisabeth, the story’s main traveler on the run (town after town) from these monsters, witnesses, not just Lucy’s crucifixion by Lucas --

-- but his severing of her head with an axe as well --

-- and his final proclamation of his love for her as he holds high the waif’s dummified noggin.

This dummy-death is made especially indelible by director Jean Rollin’s unerring dual point of view during this scene. On the one hand, he has Élisabeth, horrified at the barbarism heaped on this delicate creature, incapable of stopping the savagery --

On the other hand, he presents Lucas, who, spurred on by the extreme behavior induced by drink (in this case, highly contaminated French zombie-hootch) finally finds the courage to proclaim his love publicly as he holds his premier amour’s head up proud like a lantern that could finally guide him.

Terribly poignant and structurally rich, this décès d'un mannequin is at once poetically surreal yet technically perfect.

The Lucy facsimile is so realistically sculpted, only a dummy wouldn’t envy Lucas’ (and more realistically, Rollin’s) possession of it.

Everyone who populates this alcoholic landscape becomes something aggressively "less than human". The ultimate irony is that the one true chaste innocent is the only one to completely transform into a physically inanimate object. A mock holy ornament of symbolic purity, trust and love displayed before a flock of sinners teetering before the open gates of hell.

With Les Raisins de la mort, Rollin once again uses his acute wit to employ a variation on that old Hollywood standard, "You only kill the one you love."

So it is only logical to conclude Élisabeth's transformative odyssey with her killing her own boyfriend's killer (a man who did so at her boyfriend's own pleading request) --

-- and the substitution of her boyfriend's blood for the wine that he himself was responsible for tainting.

When all is said and done, Jean Rollin has fashioned, not simply an ironic tale of transubtantive vampirism, but a melancholy, metaphoric signaling of a master director's grappling with his own conscience over conceding to the fascistic stylistic dictates of modern commercial cinema.

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr
Thanks to Jeremy Richey over at Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience - the FMB's favorite Rollin oasis on the net!

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