A new documentary offers an insight into Jean Rollin, a cult-like figure whose odd, surrealistic films were met with every negative response from disinterest to theatre-destroying outrage before finding an appreciate cult audience. For pre-existing fans of the director, this is a career-spanning retrospective that hits all of the key films and periods one would expect. For viewers new to Rollin’s distinctive and bizarre style, you will either find his works enticing or you will not. Few European filmmakers seem quite so divisive.
While French cinema was pushing aggressively into street-level realism and the nouvelle vague, Rollin was pushing hard in the opposite direction. His personal desires pushed his work in an overtly stylised “arthouse” direction. Commercial realities saw him loading his films with horror elements, occasional gore, and a superfluity of naked women. Combined with critically low production budgets, it all blended into a series of films that were certainly highly distinctive, but which very quickly separated their fans from the movie-going public and large.
With the grandly titled Orchestrator of Storms, directors Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger have assembled a very conventional but well-researched blend of film excerpts, talking head interviews, and archival photographs. Together it tells the story of Rollin’s life and career in a chronological order. The narrative breaks rather neatly into three stages: his childhood and initial filmmaking career, a middle stage where circumstance pushed him from his own personal projects to directing hard-core pornography, and finally a latter period where Rollin finally finds his dedicated and supportive audience in the UK and USA. That his life so easily reflects a traditional three-act structure is not wasted by Ballin and Ellinger. While overly long, Orchestrator of Storms tells an interesting story whether one is familiar with Rollin or not.
There is a refreshing honesty about Rollin’s work in pornography, with both the film itself and some of its interview subjects – including actor Brigitte Lahaie – showing absolutely no sense of embarrassment, nor a need to be circumspect about it. As there is a lot of nudity in Rollin’s films there is, via archival footage, an awful lot of nudity in Orchestrator of Storms. There is a candid and mature sense about these things. It forms an integral part of Rollin’s life and works, so it makes sense for them to be front-and-centre here.
If there is a criticism to be made – and it is honestly a mild one – it is that it never quite feels as if Ballin and Ellinger get close enough the Rollin personally. It is to a large degree unavoidable, since Rollin died in December 2010. A paucity of archival material showing Rollin himself in conversation leaves the documentary skirting the surface in a sense. We learn about Rollin, but we never get to fully understand the man himself.
Orchestrator of Storms recently premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival, and it is certainly worthy of a global festival run in the coming months. It seems its natural place in the end will be as a headline special feature for a future DVD or bluray set, which is where I suspect most viewers will see it. It is a valuable reflection on an iconic, one-of-a-kind filmmaker.
Orchestrator of Storms is currently screening at the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival. Click here for more information.