Virgins and Vampires: The ambiguous women of Jean Rollin’s Gothic dreams

Amid the political upheaval of late 1960s France, Jean Rollin offered anachronistic visions of ruined castles and decaying cemeteries, steeped in the Gothic novel of the 18th and 19th century via his love for surrealism. But despite their seemingly archaic Gothic settings, Rollin’s films transgress genre expectations, and in particular, the conventional opposition between female victim and male threat, as virgins and vampires are often both women. Through the peculiar mixture of innocence and perversity that characterizes these women, Rollin explores the ambivalences of the Gothic. Through their transgressions, they come to embody the very idea of revolt, giving these Gothic damsels not just contemporary relevance, but also a lead role in the cultural drama of the time.

It is in this perspective that the eroticism and female nudity that have come to characterise Rollin’s cinema, sometimes negatively in the past, have to be considered. Initially a condition imposed by producers to make Rollin’s unconventional narratives commercially viable, female nudity became for him an anti-censorship stand as well as a powerful way of conjuring up oneiric strangeness. This conflation of exploitation and aesthetic vision offers an insight into the tensions that existed around the representation of the female body in the sexual liberation era.

Paper delivered at the conference ‘Women-in-Peril or Final Girls? Representing Women in Gothic and Horror Cinema’, University of Kent, May 2017.

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