Death and the Maiden. The haunting image of a skeleton fondling a vibrant, naked young woman has long haunted the human imagination. A principle theme of international literature and art, this psychologically engrained image embodies our contradictory fear and fascination with sex and death. Our most significant and paradoxically pleasurable/fearful phenomena, sex provides much of the tension that exists not only in horrific cinema but in everyday life. Constant bedfellows from the earliest myths, the strange yet exhilarating relationships between life and death, pain and pleasure, eroticism and dying reflects the taboo awe and suspicion with which we approach these universal symptoms of existence. Several films have strived to reflect this marriage between eroticism and mortality, varying from the outright pornographic to the poetically restrained. Along with Jess Franco, Joe Rollins has made a lifetime's art out of exploring the shadowy byways between Death and the Maiden, finding the beauty of life and love in the very deepest pits of loneliness and decay. Nowhere is this more successfully achieved by the auteur than in The Iron Rose. One of Rollin's most unique pictures, it I also one of his most mature. A love letter to love, loss, and the macabre attraction/repulsion that darkness holds for our species, this near mythical parable is at once both tender and terrifying in its implications.
The plot for The Iron Rose is largely non-existent, or perhaps so very broad and mythic -- so very universal in its implications -- that it is almost negligible. For, while it may sound pretentious (a claim often pointed at the film itself), Rollins seems to be telling the universal, timeless story of every human life -- every man and woman who has lived and suffered and loved and lost and striven for pleasure in life only to surrender to the cold embrace of death. A young man (Hugues Quester) is attracted by a young girl (Francoise Pascal) at a party/wedding reception, and soon flees the rather morose gathering for some flirting outside. Making plans to meet the next day, the two cavort with one another like children, passing a decrepit cemetery captured in brooding melancholy beauty. When the man chides the girl into entering the cemetery, a surreal and unsettling battle of the sexes ensues. They are all alone there, with the grounds drowned in time and neglect. Descending into a crypt for some nookie, time passes mysteriously fast, leaving them alone, isolated, and confused. Unfamiliar with their surroundings, they quickly feel the effects of isolation and creeping panic. The two lovers struggle to find the cemetery gates -- and find only mounting suspicion, despair, and shattered illusions. As night deepens, and their isolation/fear heighten, the two begin to fear one another (and themselves), realizing that even if they escape the graveyard, they will never escape the night's dark lesson.
A delirious poem of emptiness and soul searching, this surrealistic film makes us fear what we most desire and lust for the promise of destruction. Intimacy is both Death and the Maiden, joining true love and sensual pleasure as 'ultimate' experiences -- universal truths that, experienced nakedly and without protection, result in destruction of body and mind and soul. Rollins evokes lust, fear, and wonder in this story depicting a woman's search for meaning. A search which can have no clean solution. What she and her unfortunate lover finds is inspired madness instead, as well as the suspicion that love and loss, death and desire are each so intimately bound up together that, in truth, they are inseparable. In this light, Iron Rose is a classic tragedy and one of the director's finest character studies. Visually stunning, Rollins uses gothic architecture, funeral decoration, and a compounding sense of isolation and separateness to cement his thematic point. Visually speaking, his haunted camera and use of darkness creates a landscape that reflects shadow worlds (underworlds) from classical myth, living hells both physical and emotional, and draped in the filmmaker's typically lush and brooding romanticism. Like Orpheous descending into Hades or Inanna into the Sumerian otherworld, these two lovers descend into the underworld both literally and metaphorically. The theme of discovery and its price is paramount, as is the contradictory nature of relationships and character. Two people in love yet fascinated by death and its mementos both toy with, and in turn are being toyed by, not only mortal death but the extinction of love itself, of the spirit, and of changing perceptions. High brow stuff, but an excellent example of the philosophical integrity the genre is capable of. While lacking many of the director's motifs, such as lesbians, vampires, and the supernatural, this imagistic poem of minimalist dialogue and dream-like illogic works precisely because its principle characters are Life and Death embodied by two actors, a cemetery, and unapologetic mood. Like many of Rollin's films, atmosphere is embraced instead logic. Aside from the convincing couple who represent humanity, this appeal to the senses -- Rollin's devotion to imagery -- is captured by the French cemetery, a labyrinth of decayed splendor whose crowded rows of crosses, tombs, and statues speak somehow of the bitter-sweet ravages of time.
Fresh from leaving Image Entertainment and finding independent distribution through Ryko, Redemption Films continues showing love to Rollins. The Iron Rose, while not a perfect release, flawed by minor technical issues, is nevertheless a welcome addition to the DVD library, and nicely priced. The film is respectfully presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality, while not pristine, is mostly solid and lean, showing mild grain. The bigger problem is a digital line that appears in the upper left frame. Marring an otherwise wonderful releases, this defect will bother some more than others. A French language audio track is clean and comes with optional English subs.
Extras for The Iron Rose are worthwhile, not simply padding. It is sad, then, that they suffer from such problems. The most impressive supplement is Les Pays Loins, a short film by Rollins, which is similar to The Iron Rose in tone and theme. Focusing on a lost couple grappling with their environment, this black and white dream piece is a quick injection of inspired madness. Unfortunately, the picture fades to black inexplicably for the last two minutes of the short! The short is accompanied by an original French language track with English subs. The only other extras are trailers for the feature as well as Hurt and Black Mass. A powerful film, The Iron Rose is salvaged from oblivion by Redemption in a marred but worthwhile release.
Review by William Simmons
|Released by Redemption USA|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|