Often relegated to the ranks of sexploitation filmmakers, French director Jean Rollin has enjoyed a critical reassessment in recent years that he never experienced during his prolific filmmaking years in France, where he was mostly dismissed by the country’s leading critics. Many of his films utilized horror film conventions (graveyards, vampires, zombies) as well as exploitation tactics (gore and nudity) but combined them in a way that were uniquely his own. The Iron Rose (1973, aka La rose de fer), however, was a complete departure from Rollin’s previous efforts and was unlike anything he would ever attempt again. Closer in form to an experimental film than something that would fit comfortably into the horror genre, the movie is a macabre mood piece with poetic touches that recalls the films of Jean Cocteau and Georges Franju.
The plot, if you can call it that, is bare bones, a framework used to showcase an evocative setting (the cimetiére de Montmartre), the atmospheric cinematography of Jean-Jacques Renon and two attractive young actors. The Iron Rose opens with shots of a desolate French village and then introduces us to the two main characters, a voluptuous young beauty (Francoise Pascal) and a cocky admirer (Hugues Quester, billed here as Pierre Dupont) who meet at a wedding reception dinner. They spend the following day together and Pierre leads Francoise into a huge, sprawling cemetery for a picnic lunch. Francoise is clearly apprehensive but Pierre eventually entices her into an open crypt where they make love.
When they emerge, it is past dusk and they lose their way back to the entrance. In the darkness, Francoise becomes terrified while Pierre tries to calm her but the couple appears to be trapped in an unending maze of graves and tombstones. Francoise’s hysterical collapse soon gives way to a beatific calm and a sense of communion with the buried dead, telling Pierre, “Don’t worry. The dead are our friends.” This has the opposite effect of soothing him and he goes from confused anger to sheer to pure panic.
As you can tell from the synopsis, The Iron Rose features no vampires, ghouls or overt supernatural elements. Nor is there any explicit gore, sex or violence that would qualify as typical grindhouse fare other than some incidental nudity. Even fans of Rollin, who enjoy the more traditional horrors of Fascination (1979) or The Living Dead Girl (1982), may be puzzled and disappointed by this earlier effort. Yet it may be Rollin’s most personal film and one which he always loved despite its commercial and critical failure at the time.
There are conflicting stories about the inspiration for The Iron Rose. According to the chapter on Rollin in Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs, the director and his cinematographer were scouting locations for a new film and came across a large cemetery in Amiens. Rollin had always found graveyards fascinating so he and Renon decided to explore it. As night began to fall, they tried to retrace their steps to their car but got lost and feared they would be forced to spend the night there. Of course, they escaped in the end but the situation triggered an idea for a movie.
The other account, in Rollin’s own words, appeared in an interview conducted by Peter Blumenstock for Video Watchdog: “I knew it would be a commercial disaster. I knew it from the very beginning, but I didn’t care. At that moment, it was very important for me to make a very serious, profound film, far away from the softcore stuff I’d done previously. The story of that film was based on a short story I wrote, about six or seven pages long, which I published in a little magazine.”
Like most of Rollin’s productions, The Iron Rose was a strictly low-budget affair which was made more obvious by the fact that it was essentially a two-character film; there are some peripheral characters such as the oddball visitors and assorted mourners you glimpse in the graveyard by day but they are little more than cameo appearances. Despite this, Rollin still encountered some obstacles. “I had a lot of problems with the leading actor, Hugues Quester,” he admitted to Blumenstock. “He didn’t like me, which was quite a problem, because there are only two persons in the film, so we had to work together all the time. This eventually led to him taking his name off the film, so now, Hugues Quester is credited as “Pierre Dupont.” Quester went on to appear in numerous art house movies such as Raoul Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), Alain Tanner’s No Man’s Land (1985) and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993). As for Francoise Pascal, she was just beginning her ascent to stardom when she made The Iron Rose. Her appealing performance in the Peter Sellers’ comedy, There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) brought her a slew of promising film offers but she concentrated mostly on television work becoming a British sitcom mainstay. She reached the height of her popularity on the comedic TV series Mind Your Language (1977-1979) but after a move to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, her career collapsed due to drug problems. Pascal has since put her life in order, written an autobiography, As I Am, and returned to the field of acting. But for a brief time in the 1970s, she was quite the “it” girl, having a jet set celebrity life and dating such stars as Michael Caine, Warren Beatty, tennis champion Ilie Nastase, Telly Savalas and Richard Johnson, which whom she had a child.
When Rollin premiered The Iron Rose at the 2nd Convention of Cinema Fantastique in Paris, it was roundly booed by the audience and savaged by the critics. The reception was so hostile, in fact, that he was unable to find any willing financial backers for future projects for almost two years. It is hard to imagine this negative reaction to The Iron Rose now though it is admittedly not for everyone. There are obvious flaws to be sure; some of the dialogue is vapid and Quester’s performance is wildly erratic, resulting in some laughable and unconvincing mood swings. But anyone open to the movie’s offbeat sensibilities will discover something closer to an art film than Eurotrash.
The film’s pictorial elegance alone is captivating and infuses The Iron Rose with a sense of melancholy and impending doom. Francoise Pascal has a lush, ethereal beauty and is completely convincing as a naïve girl who waltzes into darkness. And the featured cemetery is an architectural wonder full of wrought iron, decaying mausoleums, and tombstones of all shapes and sizes, overgrown with weeds and wild flowers.
Rollin said it best when he said “the star is the cemetery more than the two ordinary characters, an oppressive setting which changes two silly characters, who little by little are swallowed up by the cemetery” (from the documentary Jean Rollin, the Stray Dreamer, 2011).
The Iron Rose was released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Kino Lorber in January 2012. The film is in French with English subtitles and includes a host of additional features such as an introduction by Jean Rollin, an interview with Francoise Pascal and trailers for various Rollin films. Other links of interest: