In Laurel & Hardy’s Our Relations, Mr. Hardy says, “You can trust me insipidly.” It’s one of their most indelible puns. There’s a good reason for that.
Ten minutes into The Grapes Of Death, the camera floats away. The gaze shifts. We’re no longer engaged with two women as they travel on an empty train. Rather, we’re engaged with the empty train itself. Minutes later, the camera completes its cold, gentle glide through the vacant cars. We arrive where we started. Two women on a train, chatting lightly about nothing at all, while noting that “No one but us would take a vacation in October.”
The train stops. A man boards. His face is melting. With total dispassion, he kills one of the women, then sits quietly as if nothing happened. That’s when I thought of Oliver Hardy’s charming communiqué.
The Grapes Of Death is not the most compelling film in Jean Rollin’s filmography. In fact, commonalities with the earlier, more challenging The Nude Vampire run deep. This is a lushly decorated vista of negative space and lambent humor. And while the artsy flamboyance of Nude has been replaced by a desire to simply gross us out, Rollin’s bid remains the same. We must trust him. Even when it seems we shouldn’t, we must. Implicitly. Or insipidly. That’s the only way to live.
Elizabeth escapes from the train, screaming. She runs through fog, empty fields, and dilapidated church yards. A single arpeggiated synth-organ is her only companion. Seeking retreat inside a small home, Eliz finds the occupants suffering from the same malady as the man on the train. They have sores that melt. Sores that visually resemble a combination of Dijon mustard and Play-Doh. Sores that make them crazy. And so it goes.
Much like Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, Grapes strolls along in a very-straight, very-dour line. Literally. It’s one woman’s journey across an anxious landscape that she doesn’t understand. Only, per usual, Rollin’s concern with social relevance and emotional dry-heaves is transitory. Instead, he offers a Euro-trash variant on George Romero’s The Crazies — more eloquence, less headiness, and a focus on the gaps between.
Rollin is a visual filmmaker. Slight moments of poetic insight, as in Fascination or The Iron Rose, are often blighted by his overwhelming sense of design. Yet, he never had much money. So when it becomes apparent that Grapes‘s emphasis lies in pitchforks-through-breasts, faces-through-windshields, and severed head revery, the trust is twofold. One, we must trust that Jean Rollin will provide us with a foothold amidst this cheap-yet-beautiful capriciousness. Two, Jean Rollin must trust us to step into that foothold and never step out. It’s a lot to ask. But, like most indelible puns, the film’s title secures its worthiness. If you understand that, you understand this movie.
As The Grapes Of Death moves, it grows. And with that growth comes understanding. This isn’t Jean Rollin’s most distinctive or engaging movie. It’s too lucid and slightly strained towards the end. But removed from that context, this is a quiet, unpredictable European gore film that benefits from Rollin’s preference for good design. You just have to trust him.