Language and the Iconography of Social Class in Rollin’s Fascination
While Jean Rollin’s 1979 film Fascination retains the appearance of a horror film, a closer examination of the film’s components -specifically its dialogue, iconography, and historical setting- reveals it to be not simply a lurid thriller but both a literal and figurative critique of class conflict in France at the turn of the twentieth century.
A brief synopsis and discussion of the film’s production justifies such as analysis. The film is set in rural France in 1905. One of the members of a gang of thieves, Marc, has double-crossed his companions and fled with a bag of stolen gold. During his flight, he happens upon a centuries-old chateau surrounded by a moat. Inside the chateau he meets two women, Eva and Elisabeth. As the story progresses, Marc contends with attacks on the chateau made by the gang and discovers that the chateau is the manor home of the Marquise, who leads a ‘blood cult,’ the members of which drink the blood of animals and humans in hopes of treating anemia.
It’s important to note that as a director, Rollin doesn’t reveal these events to the viewer gradually. Though Marc doesn’t discover what the residents of the chateau are doing until late in the film, the film itself makes the residents’ activities clear to the viewer immediately after the opening credit sequence: A group of bourgeois characters visit an abattoir, where they drink ox blood. Rollin does not present the story to the viewer as a traditional mystery or puzzle to be solved. The viewer knows immediately what is taking place even though the protagonist does not.
The story of Fascination originated with Jean Lorrain’s short story Un verre de sang (“A Glass of Blood”), which is about a group of aristocrats who consume blood under the impression that it has medicinal properties. Perhaps with this story in mind, Rollin visualized a single image, which was that of a group of bourgeois women standing stoically in an abattoir and drinking blood. Rollin developed the story the viewer sees in the final film out of these two sources. The title, Fascination, originated from the title of a French magazine of the same name edited by Jean-Pierre Bouyxou that specialized in erotic art. The title is one of several figurative uses of the French language one sees throughout the film. These two things -the film’s linguistic content and the implications about the French class system in the early twentieth century found in such scenes as that taking place in the abattoir- are the concerns of this essay.
The use of language alludes to sinister acts taking place throughout the film, beginning with the title Fascination and the notion of fascination itself. The English verb to fascinate originates from the Latin root fascin-, which in the ancient Mediterranean world typically referred to magic and witchcraft. The Latin verb fascinare meant to enchant, bewitch, or cast a spell on someone. The Roman god Fascinus was thought of as a protector of Roman soldiers from witchcraft, and was represented iconographically by a phallus. The modern French verb fasciner has two meanings: one being analogous to the English verb to fascinate (to cause intense interest in something), and the other meaning to line something -usually a structure- with fascines. For speakers of Latin-based languages, the word is typically used in the intransitive sense: something is ‘fascinating’ in that it generates intense interest or is thought-provoking in general, but does not necessarily fascinate a specific person or group of people (the ‘fascinating’ subject does not take a direct object by way of fascination). It is with the second definition where one finds a relationship between the Latin root fascin- and the modern word fascine, the latter meaning ‘bundle.’ A fascine is a large cylindrical bundle, usually of wheat, found in farming and warfare. Derivatives from the word have negative connotations today. The word ‘faggot’ is a corruption of ‘fascine,’ and was used throughout the middle ages to describe groups of homosexuals bound together over a pyre and burned in public.
The archaic definition of to fascinate is closer to the Latin verb fascinare (to enchant, bewitch, or hypnotize someone). This is the act of fascination Elisabeth and Eva carry out on Marc in the first half of the film. The two women fascinate Marc in the archaic, transitive sense. They, being members of the upper class, portray themselves in such a way to Marc, a member of the lower class, in order to convince him to stay at the chateau. When Marc asks the two women to identify themselves, Eva claims herself to be a chambermaid, and Elisabeth to be a “companion to the Marquise.” The two women use seductive language to appeal to Marc’s desire for wealth (“The chateau is closed, but we pretend it’s ours.”) and social mobility (“Trust us. We could have gotten away and raised alarm by now. Come into the next room…and I’ll tell you why we sent all the staff away from the chateau. When it gets dark, you’ll know why the two of us are here all alone.”). Eva’s use of language conflates the possibility of social mobility with the possibility of a sexual encounter, and is used to entice Marc to stay the night at the chateau.
The film makes it clear early on that Elisabeth and Eva are involved romantically and sexually. To two repel Marc’s sexual advances on Eva and even tease him, saying his “big gun” doesn’t threaten them. The dialogue, spoken entirely in French, extrapolates the relationship between the two women. Elisabeth’s dialogue, for example, contains numerous instances of the words l’amour and la mort. When they appear in written or printed form, the difference between the two words is clear, yet when heard spoken aloud, the two sound remarkably similar. One can read her dialogue in various ways with this idea in mind. She describes her relationship with Eva as …un monde de la folie et de la mort (“A world of madness and death.”). This line could serve as an apt description of the residents’ perverse consumption of animal blood and a foreshadowing of what is in store for Marc later in the film, however it is spoken immediately after Eva leads Marc into an adjacent room in the chateau, presumably to have sex. If the listener interpreted the line as …un monde de la folie et de l’amour (“a world of madness and love”), the scene portrays Elisabeth’s reflection on Eva’s infidelity.
Finally, between 1904 and 1905 (the year that the film takes place), the Italian composer Fermo Marchetti and French songwriter Maurice de Feraudy wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, to a waltz song titled Fascination. The lyrics describe acts of love serving as an ‘elixir’ or ‘antidote’ for illness and mortality, recalling the act of drinking blood as an ‘antidote’ for anemia depicted in the film:
Lorsque je souffre il me faut tes yeux profonds et joyeux,
Afin que j’y meure
Et j’ai besoin pour revivre, amour,
De t’avoir un jour,
Moins qu’un jour, une heure
Rollin’s setting of the film almost entirely inside the rural residence of members of the upper class in 1905 could be intentional. All of the events that take place in the film could easily have been set in any time or any western country, so why set the film in an isolated chateau in France in 1905? That the film takes place at a chateau at all warrants a discussion of class conflict. A chateau is the rural counterpart to an urban palais. Both are houses occupied by a member of the European nobility. Fascination was filmed over the course of two weeks almost entirely on location at the Chateau de la Motte, a manor house built in the seventeenth century near the town of Chateau-Renard, in France’s Loiret region. Throughout the seventeenth century, several members of the French nobility had chateaux such as this built throughout central France along the Loire River. This architectural trend evolved out of the nobility’s emulation of Louis XIV’s architectural projects, the best-known of which is perhaps the Palace of Versailles. The chateau thus serves as a visual signifier of status for France’s haute bourgeoisie.
Fascination is set during a time when the French nobility was losing political and economic power. France saw a tremendous growth in industrial production in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century. The Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (“French Section of the Workers International”), or SFIO, formed in 1905, which strengthened the socialist and labor movements in France and increased the potential for labor revolts. In the same year, France enacted the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État (“Law of 1905 Concerning the Separation of Churches and the State”), a law that prohibited the government from recognizing or subsidizing any religion. Before the French Revolution, the nobility owned half of the prefects in France. By World War I, they owned only one-tenth.
The political right reacted. Right-wing politics favoring class stratification, a return to a monarchist government, and antisemitism were strong in France at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1899, France had seen the formation of several right-wing organizations, particularly the Ligue antisémitique de France, Action française, and the Ligue de la patrie française. Action française was founded in part as a response to the Law of 1905. Several scenes in Fascination allude to the political climate of France at that time. The opening shot, for instance, features a pair of hands opening and perusing a Lutheran bible. Though antisemitism in the western world has a long and complex history, it is primarily with Martin Luther -particularly his 1543 treatise Von den Jüden und iren Lügen (“On the Jews and their Lies”)- that modern antisemitism in Europe and North America originates.
In Rollin’s film, Marc embarks on a long journey by foot through the French countryside, moving further away from the abandoned barn and closer toward the chateau. In doing so, he figuratively travels from the modern France of the early twentieth century to the France of the seventeenth century, when the nobility held a greater amount of political influence. The film’s setting is not the France of the Grand Palais, Henri Guimard, and the SFIO, but the France of Moliere, the House of Bourbon, and Cardinal Richelieu.
Though it’s never made clear whether or not the residents of the chateau belong to the French nobility, Fascination clearly depicts class conflict between the residents and the thieves. Consider the scenes where Eva walks across the chateau’s bridge to deliver the stolen money to the thieves, telling them “The stables are over there. You can count it there in peace,” or where after arriving at the chateau, the Marquise says to Marc “You don’t mind if I examine you as if you were my horse?” The most blatant depiction of class conflict comes late in the film, where Marc and the chateau’s residents stand over the dead body of a member of Marc’s gang. Despite Marc’s efforts at social mobility, he is repulsed by the scene, saying: “Perhaps your position shields you from the murder of a girl like her, but it’s not the same for me. I belong much more to her world than to yours.”
The residents of the chateau perhaps belong to either the haute bourgeoisie (their bourgeois status dates at least to the French Revolution) or grande bourgeoisie (they have been bourgeois since the nineteenth century and have had an established family name for several generations), and likely own some form of economic capital. The thieves belong to the lower classes, and likely come from families who contribute to the economy by way of labor in exchange for wages.
The film’s iconography -specifically the weapons, physical environments, and clothing associated with certain characters- explicates the notion of class conflict. A recurring act throughout the film is the bourgeois characters’ appropriation and perversion of objects and environments associated with the laboring classes, and vice versa. Clothing and handheld props in particular play an important role in the film, often serving as visual signifiers of social class. Marc’s attempts at social mobility are apparent in this regard. He steals the gold from other members of the gang, and to the female thief insists: “I’m not a killer. I’m not like your cohorts.” His ascot tie and red pinstripe jacket more closely resemble the clothing of a bourgeois gentleman relative to the rest of the gang, who dress primarily in earth tones.
Certain actions taken by the characters -specifically the perversion of the common use of various tools- have implications pertaining to the difference in the characters’ social class. Whereas certain objects displayed in the film have specific purposes for a member of Marc’s social class (primarily as agricultural tools), the members of Eva and Elisabeth’s social class appropriate them for alternate purposes (as weapons). Three scenes are particularly deft at portraying this appropriation.
The first takes place at the beginning of the film, where the bourgeois characters visit an abattoir. Before any dialogue is spoken, the viewer is first struck with the stark visual contrast between the bourgeoisie’s immaculate clothing and the abattoir’s austere structure and blood-covered floors. The dialogue depicts a class divide when Elisabeth remarks that they are only drinking ox blood, and her companion states: “But look at this man who slaughters oxen for a living and breathes the smell of blood.” The upper class exploits the labors of the butcher by perverting the use of the product he provides. In the same scene, Elisabeth runs the ox blood across her mouth with her finger as if she were applying lipstick -literally using the fruits of the laboring class as a fashion accessory.
The second features Elisabeth and Eva wielding fascine knives while teasing Marc. The two girls’ waving fascines back and forth implies both the evoking of the god Fascine (personified by a phallus) to repel an intruder, and members of the upper class taunting a member of the lower class by perverting the iconography of the latter: Fascine knives were typically used in military fortifications and in farming, whereas in this scene, Elisabeth and Eva have repurposed them as weapons used to threaten and intimidate Marc.
The third occurs halfway through the film, where the thieves lead Eva to the chateau’s stable, and force her to surrender her gown to the female thief. Left in the stable with no clothing or weapons, Eva appropriates the objects that are available: A cloak and a scythe. In the following scene, the female thief skips confidently back and forth outside the chateau, having successfully appropriated what a member of the lower class would consider a signifier of a member of the upper class: an item of expensive clothing. Eva then kills her with the scythe. The female thief is essentially punished for her attempting to ‘look’ like a member of the upper class, while Eva has exploited a signifier of the lower class. As with the fascine knife scene, Eva has repurposed the scythe -designed for use by farmers to cut tall grass- as a weapon. Rollin further extrapolates the class division between the characters with the scene where Marc, after seeing Eva re-enter the chateau carrying the scythe, says: “What is this farce? Are you making fun of me or what?”