Lips of Blood (1975)

Also known as:
Levres de Sang

French director Jean Rollin can be a bit of an acquired taste. Dreamlike plots and imagery, blood, nudity, erotica and poetic images co-exist with wooden acting, non-existent budgets and amateurish scenes that look like they're set up and filmed by early high-schoolers. For those movie-goers tolerant of such a strange mixture of talent and ineptitude, the films of Rollin contain their rewards. I would have to say I have acquired a taste for Rollin over the years and Levres De Sang, also known as Lips of Blood is a perfect example of all these elements flowing into each other. There's moments when I roll my eyes and wonder what the hell Rollin was thinking. Ten minutes earlier, I was marvelling at the beauty of what I was witnessing. Such is the experience of a Jean Rollin film!

Lips of Blood is mainly about returning to what made you happy in your childhood. Frederic (Jean-Loup Phillipe) met a teenaged girl named Jennifer when he was a boy, and lost amongst the ruins of a french chateau by the sea. She took him in and sheltered him for the night. Though only about seven or eight, Frederic knew he was in love with the girl and vowed to return and marry her when he left in daylight. As an adult, Frederic's haunted by this memory and longs to return to the chateau. This longing increases in magnitude when he spots a photo of the chateau at a party. Talking about the memories with his mother (Nathalie Perry), he senses a resistance to talk about it from her. However, Frederic's mind is made up – he's going to find this girl who he is convinced is real.

It turns out Jennifer is very much real and begins appearing to Frederic in visions in which she cannot speak. Appearing at a cemetary, she beckons him to release a group of four vampire girls from their coffins. The girls, dressed in translucent diaphenous gowns, promptly attack and kill anyone in sight, except for Frederic. He flees the vampires and runs into a woman who claims to be Jennifer, but older. She locks him in an apartment but he's freed by the vampires and they chase and kill her, as the real Jennifer watches. Frederic then escapes a gun-wielding pursuer before returning home and confronting his mother again about the mystery. She feigns innocence before he leaves in a rage and is thrown into a mental asylum by his mother.

Once again the four vampire girls come to the rescue, killing the presiding doctor at the asylum and releasing Frederic. Lost on the streets, he buys a postcard from a blind man which is of the Château from his memory. Now knowing where it is, he boards a train, as Jennifer appears once more to him and smiles. Once at the Château finds Jennifer's coffin which is surrounded by a strange shrine. His mother appears in the doorway, stopping him from freeing Jennifer. Finally she admits that he didn't imagine meeting the girl as a boy. In reality, Jennifer had killed his father and created the four vampire girls, who created havoc in the neighbourhood years ago. As she relates the story, men armed with wooden stakes destroy the four vampire women. His mother urges him to cut off Jennifer's head as that is the only way to finally kill a vampire after a stake through the heart, which she could never bring herself to do to Jennifer.

As the vampire hunters burn the bodies of the dead, Frederic appears and solemnly throws a head into the fire. We can see that it's only a mannequin's head from her shrine, though. He later returns and releases Jennifer from her coffin. They embrace ecstatically and we find them next at the beach, naked and caressing each other. Jennifer bites him to make Frederic like herself. They climb into a coffin, still naked, and decide to let the tide take them to a deserted island where they'll prey on passing sailors, and live together forever.

From an 'all-knowing' 2011 point of view there's elements of Lips of Blood to snigger at or look down on. The performances are all pretty stilted except for the luminous, luscious Annie Briand as Jennifer. The vampire attacks could be seen as laughable as the four girls attack their victims, leaving no wounds at all other than a smear of blood on their necks or trickling out of their mouths. When the vampire hunters attack the girls, the women run at full pelt while the extras playing the hunters walk slowly after them, stakes raised, yet somehow catching up with them to polish them off. The bats that sit in the girls' coffins before they change are common old fruit bats. Yet none of these quibbles matter really. Rollin has created pure visual poetry with many of his images. In one scene the vampire-women are all standing on a windy rockface and one of the girls' dresses blows over her head, leave her naked with her face obscured by an upswept dress. In the context of the howling wind and gothic imagery, it looks fantastic. The vampiric blond twins, played by Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel, are often seen with one girl smiling demonically, one looking forlorn and sad. It's a strange image, perhaps meant to convey the state Jennifer killed them in, or perhaps one loves being a vampire and one despairs of it.

Rollin's themes of longing and desire probably strike a chord in all of us. Who wouldn't like to return to one's childhood and seize youthful dreams, whatever they consist of? Frederic's a lucky man in the sense that not only can he attain the girl he's dreamed about for thirty-odd years, but he gets to live in that state of ecstacy forever. Are all mothers meant to hold their sons back from sexual or romantic fulfilment? I'm not sure, but Frederic's certainly wants to do away with Jennifer even though she sheltered her years ago.

Lips of Blood is filled with castles, chateaus, beaches and glamorous girls. Winds howl and bats fly. It's a visual feast for much of the running time, and I find myself forgiving the odd crude piece of film-making when Rollins' poetic, longing side comes through. Though probably my favorite at the time of writing, I'm in the fortunate position of not having seen all of these Gallic gems. Stay tuned for more Rollin reviews in future.

© Boris Lugosi, 2011.

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