The earliest surviving erotic film came out in 1896. It is called Le Coucher de la Mariée, and, as one can tell from the title, it is French. From the very first moment the camera was invented, humans have desired to document their naked bodies for posterity and pleasure. Even as our tastes for cinematic fiction evolved, creating dramas and comedies and thrillers and whatever else our intellects dictated, pornography remained a consistent part of our filmic diet – even if it was pushed to the margins. Gradually, society’s sexual mores have shifted, and sex has managed to push part of itself into the mainstream. Though there are some distinct peaks – the ’90s erotic thriller boom, or the early ’70s when both softcore (Emmanuelle) and hardcore (Deep Throat) films briefly become fashionable – I tend to think that eroticism has always found a place in the heart of the people through a genre that’s still thriving today: horror.
In her essay Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess, Linda Williams argues that horror, pornography, and melodrama are part of a group she called “body genres”; these genres all attempt to elicit a bodily response from the viewer. Horror attempts scream or shivers; melodrama attempts tears or sobbing; pornography attempts arousal or ejaculation. Williams argues that these genres work in similar ways, manipulating instinctual emotions within the viewer to garner these reactions.
Williams places the cultural esteem of pornography and horror very close to each other, and she’s absolutely right. Even at its most esteemed, horror is seen by the general public as a lesser genre, one appealing to a crowd of base gore-hounds. It doesn’t help that the structure of horror takes many cues from pornography. In both, characters engage in some form of foreplay, a building of tension. When that tension is at its most unbearable, both films engage in a cathartic release – something like the “money shot” in pornography, the death scene in horror (the latter often enacted by some sort of phallic blade). Hell, these moments usually have the same reaction, albeit for different reasons: a scream.
The intersection of sex and horror was recognised early on by the Europeans, and an entire industry of erotic horror films is the proof. The most famous of these trash auteurs might be the ridiculously prolific Jesús Franco, who directed around 160 cheap, shamelessly pornographic films in his lifetime.
While I find Franco’s work fitfully beguiling, my personal favourite of these directors is the criminally underseen Jean Rollin. Always interested in genre filmmaking, Rollin found a niche with his gorgeous, dream-like erotic vampire films. Rollin’s films are often breathtakingly beautiful, his static but evocative cinematography framing his nubile leads in stunning tableaux that make great use of the scenery surrounding. His work generally moves strangely, his rhythms off-kilter and based on a dreamlike logic. When his characters speak, they often do in poetic, overwrought monologues. When they have sex – as they often do – it is not in the carnal way we’ve come to expect from the modern slasher, but calmly and out of time. No one ever fucks in a Jean Rollin film, they’re always making love.
All of this place-setting to introduce a film that doesn’t really fit into the bounds of the horror genre. My favourite Rollin film has no lesbian vampires and little sex. If it is a horror film, it is of the psychological variety. And yet, it may be the purest form of Jean Rollin’s sensibilities.
This film is called The Iron Rose.
In The Iron Rose, Rollin takes a Bunuelian story of psychological entrapment and applies the rawest, most personal form of his aesthetic to create a heartbreaking masterpiece of youth and mortality.
Two unnamed young lovers – a sensitive tough guy and a winsome naïf – have a date in a cemetery. After making love in a crypt, they find themselves unable to leave the graveyard, and spend the night gradually coming apart.
Watching The Iron Rose feels voyeuristic. Something about this – the sincerity and the pain and the strangeness – feels so personal to Rollin, like he’s just placing his withering heart on the table for all to see. There’s no vampires here, no zombies, nothing overtly supernatural. It’s just two young idealists struggling to understand their place in a universe that existed long before them and will exist long after.
As they grow more and more frightened, the lovers begin to transform into their true selves. He exhibits cowardice, insecurity, a fear of death that shows itself in a flippant destruction of his surrounds. She becomes weary, accepting and welcoming of entrapment and darkness, wiser and scarier than her years should allow; her disappointment in him drives her to the dead. Is this what Rollin thinks of humanity? Is this what he thinks of life – simply a spiteful response to the inevitability of mortality?
In Rollin’s world, everyone is simply circling the grave, every action inextricably tied to their future sleep. Early on, we are shown a clown in full makeup attending to a grave. Rollin intercuts between a scene of sex and this clown, gradually showing his whole process. Beyond the initial confusion of his presence, the clown is never treated as a joke. He’s simply another force of ostensible joy being affected by the grave. The lovers may fuck in the cemetery in direct opposition to what lays below them, but they’re simply staving off time – no matter what, it’s all coming down.
Rollin’s contemplative approach reaches its peak here. Even at his most macabre – such as a make-out session on top of a pile of bones – he finds only regret and melancholy. When the male paramour reaches his nadir, Rollin shoots his pathetic destruction from afar, any sense of dread eclipsed by a gentle acceptance.
And yet, despite this fatalism, The Iron Rose is not a film without joy. Rollin’s obsession with the female form comes to a head in a fantasy, as the female lover walks naked upon a rocky stretch of beach (a stretch that Rollin seems to use often). She smiles, she laughs, she finds happiness in her peace. At the graveyard, too, there are times of surrealist comedy. Save for one, every other inhabitant we see is some kind of cartoonish creature – the clown, a caped man, a medieval hunchback – and the inherent strangeness of the lovers’ venue choice is played for dark comedy early on.
From the start of his career, Jean Rollin seemed obsessed with death. Go back and watch any of his films, and there is a certain inevitability to all of them. In Fascination, a group of death cultists run a castle the local villagers believe haunted by ghosts. In The Grapes of Death, the very source of the townsfolk’s livelihood – wine – is the cause of their demise. In Lips of Blood, the return of the protagonist’s childhood love results in his confinement to a coffin. There are no heroes or villains in Rollin’s work, there are only the dead and the living – and their place on the moral spectrum is unclear. Yet, despite this obsession, Rollin does not appear to be afraid. He simply seems … done.
As the young lovers in The Iron Rose note early on, we’re dead for much longer than we’re alive.
“They say that stars are the Gods sending us signals.”