Written and Directed by: Jean Rollin
Starring: Franca Mai, Brigitte Lahaie and Jean-Marie Lemaire
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The story in Fascination would make for a hell of a Penthouse letter, reading something like this: ďDear Editor, I ripped off some crooks, hung out in a French chateau, and stumbled upon a couple of lesbians preparing for an annual feastÖĒ And thatís just the setup; considering Jean Rollin is at the helm, you know things are likely to get even more wild from there. Even a bit fascinating, perhaps, in the alluring, dreamy way many Rollin films draw you into a surreal fantasy.
Jean-Pierre Lemaire is Mark, the petty thief who finds himself in this mess. After he makes off with a bag of gold, he ducks his fellow criminals by shacking up in an abandoned mansion--only it isnít abandoned. Inside are two girls, Eva and Elizabeth (Brigitte Lehaie and Franka Mai); they are apparently lovers but are willing to invite Mark to stay the evening as they prepare for the arrival of some mysterious special guests. Instead, they get unwanted visitors in the form of Markís former companions, who attempt to siege the house and recover their lost loot.
If you know your Rollin, then youíll probably expect that vampirism rears its fanged head eventually. There are even hints at this, almost as if Rollin himself knew what was expected of him by 1979; he even hints at it rather overtly, keeping blood at the center of Fascination. The film opens with some apparently normal French women visiting an abattoir to drink ox blood, a scene that feels entirely divorced from the next hour of the proceedings. Instead, youíre detoured into a spooky little haunted house movie for the middle section; even the mansion is eerily presented, situated almost on an island to itself. When Mark approaches, you can faintly see the presence of someone in the window, an image that Rollin subtly buries into the edges of the frame. Something is a little off before we even enter this gothic abode.
Its terrors are well-hidden in the form of the two beauties waiting inside. Lehaie and Mai are quite a duo, with the former being a porn star and the latter eventually becoming a singer (among other endeavors). Their mysterious intrigue here is the filmís propulsion; perhaps this is actually where the title comes from, as we canít help but be fascinated whenever the two are on the screen. Both are enigmatic and certainly seem to be hiding something behind their coy, angelic exteriors; Lehaieís Eva is particularly mesmerizing. Her sharp features make her subtly dangerous and aggressive--even when sheís being submissive during sex, you feel like sheís in control, waiting to strike. One is hardly surprised when she eventually wields a scythe and goes on a rampage.
That turn of events takes Fascination into slasher territory, but itís no more a slasher flick than it is a vampire flick. No, Fascination is its own thing, and itís a wholly Rollin experience, right down to the requisite eroticism. In this case, a producer-mandated pseudo-softcore scene involving Lehaie and Mai comes off as rather gratuitous but is perhaps barely justifiable considering how sex and love drive the film. Especially sex, which is essentially a demarcation of power at nearly every turn--Eva uses it to coerce Mark into staying the night, and we see her aggression take hold when she turns the tables on a rapist. Despite the scantily-clad women perpetually in display, Fascination has some feminist leanings in terms of reversing these sexual dynamics; what starts as the ultimate Penthouse dream letter ends as a nightmare for a man seduced into a cruel fate at the hands of women who turn him into the ultimate object for consumption.
Thereís also some subtexts about class warfare rumbling beneath the surface since Lemaireís proletariat also finds himself being terrorized by the vicious landed gentry. Rollin sets the film in 1905, but this bourgeoisie paranoia is much more classical than that, extending all the way back to the countryís revolutionary period. Fascination can easily be read as a parable about how the plebian masses will rip each other apart before the aristocracy will clean up the scraps. Rollin isnít exactly heavy-handed with this, though; Fascination feels a little bit too timeless to be bogged down in such political morass, resembling a nightmarish fairy tale more so than a moralistic tract. The film reveals Rollinís typically elegant touch, with its gorgeous imagery and ornate production design. Even the gore feels gracefully done and precise here, as if the director is also worried about carelessly splattering even a drop of precious blood.
Fascination might not be a supernatural film, but it feels no less surreal; its opening scene, though mired in supposed science of the age (the women are drinking blood as a cure for anemia), is certainly bizarre, and Markís journey becomes increasingly dark and foreboding as night falls. It perhaps stands out as an oddball in Rollinís canon in terms of content, but itís one of the better goth-erotic horrors Iíve seen. Fascination has been released a few times in DVDís lifespan, but if you havenít picked it up yet, youíre in luck since Redemption and Kino just teamed up for the definitive Blu-ray release, which gloriously updates the filmís presentation. Using restored 35mm elements, the film looks and sounds fantastic and is supplemented by two deleted sex scenes, a ďVampires and VirginsĒ featurette that profiles Rollin, trailers for both Fascination and four other Rollin films, and an informative 20 page booklet by Tim Lucas that expounds upon both the filmís subtexts and its production. For whatever reason, Fascination was a film that eluded me for several years; I was always drawn in by the image of Lehaie brandishing a scythe (which ends up being one of about a dozen memorable images), but I never got around to it until now. It was worth the wait. Buy it!
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