Tuesday, May 24, 2011

La Nuit Des Horloges (2007)

The Night of the Clocks

Rarely have I seen an artist struggle so openly with the question of what their work means in the light of their mortality as in Jean Rollin's penultimate film, La Nuit Des Horloges.  Rollin died three years after making this film, after a long illness, and there can be no doubt that he did not expect to have many years of life ahead of him during the production of this unique movie.

Actress Ovidie plays a young woman who has just learned of the death of her cousin, film-maker Michel Jean (Rollin's full name was Jean Michel Rollin Roth le Gentil; his other major non de plume was Michel Gentil.)  Although she barely knew him, she seeks to commemorate his death by reading a novel he gave her when she was a child.  This begins an odyssey in which she will be confronted by a series of specters, not the dead, but lost fictions.  Characters and ideas from her cousin's films and novels stalk her, leading her on a journey into the realms of death and fantasy.

Ovidie contemplates a specter from the past

 Let's be clear up front: under no circumstances would I recommend this film to anyone unfamiliar with Rollin's body of work.  La Nuit Des Horloges is a difficult film under any circumstances, but it relies for it's potency and poignancy on a very specific semiotics, a language established over Rollin's 40-year career.  As we accompany the protagonist on her journey we are reunited with props, characters and settings from previous works; clips of those films are interspersed into this one, sometimes as flashbacks, sometimes as though they are still taking place at the margins of the frame.

Rollin's flair for composition was undiminished to the last

A number of singular questions or concerns seem to motivate Rollin as he sends his surrogate audience on her journey.  The first, perhaps, is a deep melancholic regret that the world he created in his films will fade away without him.  He mourns for the works he never got to realize, a regret his fans can't help but share.  In one scene a character cries that she didn't get to film the death scene Michel Jean wrote for her.  She weeps as she describes its beauty and violence.  In another, a character from a lost film confronts our heroine, asking if she knows where the missing reels are.  When all they find are stills, he waxes nostalgic about the cast and staff of the film.

The second major concern appears to be an attempt to unify his work (at least those parts that Rollin remains proud of) into a larger thematic whole.  By jumping wildly between scenes, characters, settings and props of films from throughout his career, Rollin reinforces the idea that they all share some primordial space.  These are not separate stories sharing only their author, Rollin seems to be saying, but a series of glimpses into another world.  He also hints at his world's origins, constantly drawing attention to artists, authors, and filmmakers, landscapes, music and sculptures that inspired him.  But he rejects any notion that a single coherent narrative could emerge when he has a character remark that "no true riddle has an answer."

Familiar faces make a striking return

Lastly, for obvious reasons, the movie is obsessed with death, and in particular with separating the myth and fantasy, of death from it's grimmer reality.  Rollin, after all, was best known as a horror director -- he staged dozens of memorable deaths in his career.  But he seems painfully aware that none of that has prepared him for what's coming.  Every character our heroine encounters recounts their stylized passing.  Only Dominique, who played the mesmerizing vampire from Shiver of the Vampires seems to be playing herself as an actress rather than a self-aware fiction.  "In the film I died drinking my own blood -- it was beautiful.  But in reality, I could die in my sleep tomorrow."  Another character assures Ovidie that her cousin "loved violence, but only the fake kind."  In films, she reminds us, death can be beautiful "without the brutality."  In these scenes Horloges, despite its low budget and non-professional actors, reaches an incredibly raw and honest emotional truth about why we go to all that effort to romanticize death.   

The film's most haunting sequence brings Ovidie to the house of the skinned ones
La Nuit Des Horloges is not superlative film-making, nor is it among Rollin's finest achievements.  I can only imagine that an audience unfamiliar with or unappreciative of his work would find it to be incoherent, pretentious twaddle.  But that's okay -- this movie wasn't made for them.  When Ovidie says that she's haunted by the images of his films even though she barely knew him as a person, she's clearly a surrogate for all of us around the world who share that sentiment -- her journey is ours.  Rather than seeking out new audiences, Rollin is addressing the faithful.  So if he doesn't capture the magic of his best works, that's only natural.  Only an imperfect film could be this deeply personal, this human.

"It is the dead that dream of the living, not the reverse"

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