This is Jean Rollin’s first film not to feature vampires. Instead, it is in many ways a huge departure from his first trio of films. This makes The Iron Rose a focal point for Rollin fans’ praise as well as ire. Alternately lauded as a tragic but poetic love story or panned as monotonous nonsense, the film was never as popular either at the theater or on the bootleg circuit as his other films.
Based on a short story by Rollin, itself based upon a poem by Tristan Corbiere, an obscure 19th-century French poet, the film is about a young couple who meet at a wedding. They are immediately attracted to one another and the young man invites the young woman for a bike ride. The next day, the pair head out, eventually taking a rest outside the gates of a rather large cemetery. They decide to explore the cemetery and picnic inside the gates. Their explorations eventually lead to a sexual tryst in an underground vault, but to the dismay of the couple, they have overstayed their welcome and the cemetery has been closed for the night. The bulk of the film depicts the two lovers trying to escape from the cemetery. As they repeatedly find themselves arriving at the same spot, fear gives way to paranoia and the relationship–and the girl’s mind–begin to break apart.
Rollin has deemed The Iron Rose his most personal film, and one of his favorites, and he was sorely disappointed when it failed at the box office. Given that the film is so different from his first trio of vampire films, it’s really no surprise that audiences were disappointed. Nevertheless, The Iron Rose is still quite an interesting film and, while there may be no vampires in this cemetery, there are plenty of Rollin’s typical flourishes. While most of the film consists of the two young lovers cavorting then wandering about the cemetery while they look for an exit, Rollin does treat us to a few quirky characters that pop in on occasion, including a brief glimpse of a man entering a vault with a Dracula cape on (the only hint of vampirism contained within the film), an old lady who visits the cemetery faithfully each day (Natalie Perrey, longtime Rollin collaborator), a grizzled and mysterious old monk who peeks at the lovers from the nearby woods, and even a clown who delivers flowers to a grave site! This last character is quintessential Rollin, both quirky and strange, and totally out of place within the setting. But it is the clown, dressed in full face makeup, red nose, and classic bright red wig, that gives the audience perhaps the scariest scene of the film. There is something quite unsettling about seeing a clown in full costume walking through a cemetery…the image stays with you long after the film has ended.
One of Rollin’s strongest points was always his location choices and set design. Here, there is very little set design needed as Rollin chooses to film the vast majority of the film in the enormous, ancient graveyard of the medieval French city of Amiens. The cemetery is almost a character unto itself. It is absolutely huge and filled with centuries-old gravestones, vaults, and sculpture. This location is chilly and eerie and a perfect choice for the film. But while many a horror film has been made in a cemetery, this may be the least horrific of Rollin’s "horror" films. It comes across as more of a fairy tale. Rollin directs with enough subtlety that the viewer is unsure if the two lovers are truly lost in this huge cemetery or if the cemetery is a living entity, trapping the pair much like a spider traps its prey in a web. The pair gamely walk about the cemetery, now this way, now that way, trying to find the edge of the graveyard. But no matter in which direction they travel, they always end up back at the mysterious tomb where they consummated their relationship. Is this blind luck? After all, we’ve always heard that when lost, one tends to walk in circles. Or is this part of the design of the cemetery itself? The question is left open and hanging for the viewer to decide.
While not as colorfully lit as other Rollin pictures, lighting still plays a major role. Rollin understood that the strong, colorful lighting he used in his previous, campier films would seem out of place in this Gothic fairytale, so he stayed with traditional white lighting. But with the natural fog of northern France and the bright, white lights used in filming, Rollin succeeds in creating a creepy atmosphere throughout the film.
The film is subtitled "A Strange Love Story", and indeed, it is quite a strange love story that is told. From the outset, the girl seems not to want to enter the cemetery. While there are no overt hints, it seems she may be more…sensitive to the dead than is the boy. Francoise Pascal stars as the girl, and she is a revelation. Still relatively new to the screen at the time, she is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest of the girls Rollin used for his films–and that’s a strong statement when you consider some of the women Rollin has committed to film: Caroline Cartier in The Nude Vampire, Sandra Julien in The Shiver of the Vampires, and Brigitte Lahaie in several films, to name but a few. By her own admission, many of Pascal’s scenes were improvised, and she does a superb job portraying a character who is slowly losing her mind. There isn’t nearly as much nudity (and no blood whatsoever) compared to Rollin’s other films, but clothed or unclothed, Pascal is totally sexy. In her time, she may have had the best breasts than any actress in the 70’s, and Rollin knows just how to exploit them. Pascal wanders about the cemetery in a barely-buttoned blouse, the perfect curves of her full breasts tempting the viewer time and time again. In what I think is the sexiest shot in the film, Pascal stands nude against a wall, arms crossed in front of her chest with just a hint of nipple protruding above one arm. She gives her new boyfriend a come-hither look that would melt any man before he steps into the frame to kiss her. For his part, Hugues Quester as the boy does a nice job of alternating between cajoling his paranoid lover and losing patience with her. He comes across as conceited and a bit of a lout, not at all sympathetic–the better the payoff in the end as his lover, now totally crazed with fear, seals him in the underground tomb that continues to beckon them throughout the night.
So while many Rollin fans feel betrayed by this film, many others find it a fascinating character study. While some find the lack of action completely boring, others find enough merit in the artiness of the film and the psychology of the characters for multiple viewings. For the record, I am firmly in the latter camp. The third release from the Kino-Lorber/Redemption Video collaboration, this offbeat release won’t please everyone, but it’s an intriguing film and a great choice for release in the Rollin video library.
The Iron Rose has just been released in a newly mastered, HD version from the original film negatives. Included is a wealth of extras such as an introduction by Rollin himself along with interviews with Francoise Pascale and Natalie Perrey. Other extras include both French and English trailers for the film and there is also the choice of a dubbed English soundtrack or the original French soundtrack with English subtitles. The same very nice 20-page booklet, found in all five Rollin releases and authored by the original Video Watchdog, Tim Lucas, is included.
The Iron Rose was released in late January and is readily available at many retail outlets and online stores on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as on video-on-demand at Amazon.com.