Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Iron Rose (1973)

Country: FRANCE

La rose de fer
Rose of Iron

The production of horror films and works of fantasy have been sporadic during the history of French cinema. Unlike the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy or even Germany, French horror has never successfully coalesced into a cycle or movement. This is somewhat of a surprise when we consider that much of the visceral quality of horror owes its origins to the French theatrical tradition known as Grand Guignol. Furthermore the elements of fantasy and dislocation that form the backbone of horror’s nightmare logic can be seen in the experimental work of the surrealist art movement - which found its greatest prominence in France in the 1920’s. The work of Georges Franju in the 1940’s and 1950’s offered a link to these past traditions, most notably in his abattoir documentary Blood of the Beasts (1949) and his outstanding cosmetic surgery nightmare Eyes Without a Face (1959). But it would be the offbeat cinematic offerings of Jean Rollin that would make this link to the past most implicit. Whether you rate his films or not his importance within French traditions of fantasy and surrealism are notable.

The films of Jean Rollin are often difficult to categorise because of their self-conscious combination of art cinema narrative strategies and the more prurient and vulgar conventions of exploitation cinema (in this case nudity, lesbianism, and images of a sado-masochistic quality). He achieves an hallucinatory sense of timelessness, and a dream-like aspect which opposes linearity in favour of the discordance of unconscious realms. He offers a muted surrealism that at times can create a highly effective and charged atmosphere. The Iron Rose appears at first to be a more conventional attempt at story-telling, but this film is all about what is beneath the surface….quite literally the dead beneath the earth. The plot is simplistic and revolves around two thrill seeking young lovers who get lost in an unfeasibly labyrinthine cemetery. Despite this situation (or because of it) they still find time to have sex in a conveniently open vault and atop a pile of mouldering bones. Naturally for a Rollin film character motivation is kept to an absolute minimum which makes the events increasingly perplexing. The Girl (Francoise Pascal) possesses mystery right from the off, but little prepares us for her transformation into a death obsessed temptress who cavorts and dances amongst the graves and ultimately commit’s a cold and calculated murder.

The cemetery takes on a life of its own and becomes uncanny and inescapable. The overgrown vegetation offering vitality and life is contrasted with the rot of the grave. The beauty of The Girl is somehow enhanced by her proximity to death, which aids her self discovery. A further contrast is offered between the crumbling and decaying architecture and the youngsters who make love upon it. Instead of bringing life into this sepulchral space their lovemaking is equated to death. The conflation of sex and death is one of Rollin’s recurring thematic trends, but in The Iron Rose it reaches an apex. If this isn’t enough Rollin adds more conventional surrealist touches such as the image of a clown delicately placing flowers on a grave and afterwards totally vanishing from the narrative.

The protracted sequences in the city cemetery are inter-cut with several perplexing scenes that appear to be outside of time. The first of these opens the film and is a strikingly composed scene set on a desolate beach, it seems to prefigure the events to follow, though any attempt to place it chronologically within the story will be frustrated. The Girl throws the symbolic Iron Rose into the surf, an object she picks up much later in the film, and it gives us a possible clue as to the location of this realm. We return to this setting on one more occasion to witness her cavorting naked on the beach, and it seems to me this space either represents The Girl’s unconscious or is a representation of the afterlife. This is without doubt one of Rollin’s artiest films. It has a sense of minimalism, restraint and subtlety. It interrogates subjective identity and desire through a philosophical consideration of life and death and does so quite intelligently. The dialogue is perhaps a little too philosophical and prophetic, and at times the film slips perilously close to being gloomily pretentious. I personally prefer Rollin when he is having fun with lesbian vampires, but there is something of value here.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. Sounds like a cool watch, I love films dealing with philosophical themes, plus the theme of death and what comes after it also intrigues me. I need to get up to date on Rollin's films!

  2. This is one of my favorite Rollin films. The simplistic narrative--a couple lost in a cemetery--allows for Rollin to open up with his imagery. It's an extremely sensual and atmospheric piece, brimming with poeticism. I enjoyed reading your insights, Shaun, and hope all is well.

  3. Thanks for the comments gentlemen - its an interesting film Franco but it wouldnt be my first port of call when embarking on a Rollin season. I'd opt for THE GRAPES OF DEATH or THE LIVING DEAD GIRL.

    It is a deceptively simplistic film as you note Hans and I do think this works in its favour. I wish I'd used the words sensual and poeticism in my review. You've summed the whole film up in a sentence. Yes, all is well in my little part of Herefordshire - thanks for stopping by, its always a bonus to read your thoughts.

  4. Shaun, I totally agree that his 80s zombie movies like The Living Dead Girl are the best introduction to his work.

    As for his best film, for me it's either The Iron Rose or Fascination.

  5. If this is considered pretentious and artsy for Rollin, I cant even imagine being able to follow it after I was commonly lost in his easier films like Grapes of Death or The Living Dead Girl =D

    Im with Franco though, sounds like a film I will have to be adding to the list Shaun, thanks for the review!


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