Few directors were as obsessed with memory as the great French filmmaker Jean Rollin and the 1975 cinematic memory poem, Lips of Blood, is one of his most personal works.
Frederic (played by Jean-Loup Philippe, a frequent Rollin collaborator) is at a reception for the launch of a new perfume. After discussing how certain fragrances can bring back subjective memories of the past, Frederic notices a poster hanging on the wall. The poster is a photograph of an old castle sitting on the beach. As Frederic stares at the poster, he has a vision of himself as a child, approaching the same castle and meeting a young woman named Jennifer (Annie Belle). Jennifer, who was apparently unable to go beyond the castle’s gates, allowed Frederic to get some sleep in the castle. When Frederic woke up, he left the castle but he promised Jennifer that he would return and that he would help her to leave the castle.
Years later, Frederic is haunted by the vision. He’s not sure if it’s dream or if it’s something that really happened. When he discusses it with his mother (Nathalie Perrey), she insists that it was just a dream and that Jennifer doesn’t exist. Even when Frederic says that he can’t remember anything about his childhood, his mother insists that he’s just imagining things.
But when Frederic starts to have visions of Jennifer beckoning him to come find her, is he imagining things or is she really trying to contact him? When she leads Frederic to a cemetery, is Frederic going mad or is Jennifer trying to tell him something? And, if this is all just in Frederic’s mind, why is he being followed by two mysterious girls who both have fangs and a taste for blood? Why are strangers trying to kill him? Even when Frederic is ruled to be mad and forcefully taken to an insane asylum, he remains obsessed with returning to the beach and finding that castle….
Lips of Blood has all the typical elements of a Rollin film. Yes, there are vampires. Yes, there is an old castle and yes, it’s on the same beach where it’s speculated that Rollin himself spent most of his childhood. (That beach makes an appearance in nearly every Rollin film.) Yes, the imagery is frequently sensual and erotically charged. And yes, the film plays out as its own dreamlike pace. Rollin is often described as being a director of vampire films but, at heart, Rollin was a surrealist and each one of his films creates its own unique world. The world that Rollin creates in Lips of Blood is a rather melancholy one, one tinged with love, regret, and existential angst. Frederic is wealthy and successful and leads what most people would consider to be a glamorous lifestyle. Yet, he’s empty. He’s haunted by the past and a promise that he failed to keep.
Indeed, throughout the film, there’s a palpable yearning for a simpler and more innocent world. It’s present in every frame of Lips of Blood. When Frederic visits the photographer who took the picture of the castle, the walls of her studio are decorated with vaguely political images, reminding us that the modern world can be a frightening and confusing place. The world is full of people who are not only threatened by what Frederic saw in the castle but also by Frederic’s refusal to share their fear. Frederic refuses to conform and therefore, society conspires to destroy not just him but also the glimpse he got into a world beyond our own. By the end of the film, as he and another talk about getting in a coffin and allowing themselves to be swept out to sea in the hope of finding an isolated island, it’s impossible not to hope that they make it.
Lips of Blood is one of Rollin’s best and most personal films. Never forget it.