It is 1972. Marie-Françoise Pascal is enjoying dinner at the très chic White Elephant Club on Curzon Street in London with her then-partner Richard Johnson. Suddenly a woman sashays up to the table and tells the rising young starlet, “My husband thinks you’re the most beautiful girl he has ever seen.”

“I turned around and was completely flabbergasted,” Pascal tells Diabolique. “Because there sat Kirk Douglas raising his glass to me.”

The legendary actor gave Pascal his card on the way out. “Call me,” he said. And so the next day this is precisely what she did. “I’m looking for a girl just like you to play opposite me in Scalawag,” Douglas said.

This was serendipity on a grand scale—a potentially life-changing opportunity many struggling actresses would kill to secure. Yes, Pascal’s resume had its ingénue notches—There’s a Girl in My Soup alongside Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn; The Beloved with Johnson and Raquel Welch—but nothing this front and center mainstream.

Yet when Douglas told her the shooting dates Pascal—gathering a courage few in her place could muster—told the Hollywood queenmaker, “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’ve already got another film I’m doing.”

And this was how Pascal not long after found herself sitting amidst the tombs of Paris’ vast Montmartre Cemetery—final resting place of Stendhal, Dumas, Heine, and de Vigny, among many others—in the dead of night watching a family exhume the body of a nineteenth century relative to retrieve some jewelry.

“His face was not even decomposed,” she says. “I’ll never forget his red hair and that face.”

This, it seems, is the sort of thing that happens when you say “No” to Kirk Douglas and “Yes” to Jean Rollin.

The Iron Rose is the most interesting left turn in Rollin’s oeuvre—a surrealist fever dream as beguiling and sensual as it is unsettling anchored by a tour de force performance by Pascal which manages to be nuanced and fierce, sophisticated and primal, all the while exuding this otherworldly mesmerizing charisma.  

A flirtatious young potential couple—Pascal and Pierre Dupont, appearing merely as The Girl and The Boy in the film’s credits—take a casual stroll in the aforementioned sprawling city of the dead. They’re feeling it enough to steal a candle from the statue of a saint and descend into an underground tomb for a little hanky panky. Unfortunately for the lovers, a peculiar clown (Rollin regular Mireille Dargent) locks the cemetery gates and they soon find themselves trapped in a place where all the rules and norms of modern life are banished with the last rays of the setting sun—and The Girl becomes a conduit for something mystical and awe-inspiring from another realm.

“I was actually not familiar with Rollin at the time,” Pascal says. “Which was perhaps a good thing because his previous films were wonderful, but basically vampires with breasts and sex coming at you from every direction, and I just really didn’t want to go that way. I had taken my clothes off in my very first two films, which was fine. And when I was about 17 or 18 I did [pictorials for] Penthouse and another magazine called Men Only—very subtle and beautiful pictures that are nothing for me to be ashamed of. But, you see, I didn’t want to feel as if I must take my clothes off. I’d been coached in acting—it was my passion and I believed I was good at it. I wanted my talent to be the reason I held the audience’s attention, not anything else.”

The lack of awareness was in this case a two way street—Rollin had other young women in mind for the role. It was producer Sam Selsky (The Living Dead Girl/Requiem for a Vampire) who had sent Pascal both the script and the Rollin short story upon which it was based. It captured the heart and imagination of the young actress immediately.

“I thought after all these small parts, what better way to finally showcase what I can really do than to become a girl who slowly and powerfully becomes crazy in a cemetery,” Pascal says with a soft chuckle. “I absolutely adored Jean’s approach to the idea. I believed in it enough to turn down Kirk Douglas, as I said, and I saw it as a chance to do something special on my own terms.”

Rollin came around and his faith was rewarded quickly: Pascal threw herself into the director’s strange tale with rare fervor and dedication, going so far as to spend time psychiatric hospital to, in her words, “investigate madness.”

“It was a very profound experience—one I’ll never forget,” she says. “It is an aspect of life that is so often hidden away, but I wanted to bring it out and honor it. When you see me dancing in the film, much of that was an imitation of the dancing I saw women do in the hospital. It was little things like that which I felt a responsibility to get as right as I could.”

Once on set she could be found wandering the cemetery, script in hand, constantly immersing herself in lines while trying to mine every bit of inspiration she could from her unusual surroundings and the ghosts that often seemed to occupy them just out of sight. “Mind you, the white wine also helped,” Pascal adds.

Pascal and Rollin quickly formed a solid bond. “He was very attentive toward me,” she says. “He took what I had to say very seriously and allowed me to have a lot of input into the film.”

In a way they were unlikely kindred spirits, both striving to break out of molds that had begun to feel a bit too restricting and predictable.

The Iron Rose

“He was dying to do something totally different, I believe—just like me,” Pascal confirms. “Something more experimental and artistic like other French directors. Part of the problem was Jean was far, far ahead of his time. Making The Iron Rose I learned first hand what an incredible mind he had. It is good that his work has become more loved over the years, but I’m not sure it is fully understood what an unbelievable creative force he really was. I don’t think he ever had the opportunity to show us all the amazing things he was capable of.”

This is, in part, why Pascal relented when (perhaps inevitably) Rollin asked that she do nude scenes after all.

“He first asked me to take my clothes off in the beginning  on the beach with the rocks and the sea and all that,” she says. “I refused. It was cold and I just felt, ‘No, I don’t need to do this.’ But he really pleaded with me—‘please, please, please…it is for the film…blah, blah, blah.’ All the BS they give you about it. Finally I was like, ‘Oh God, okay, okay. It’s only a couple of scenes, really, so I’ll do it just for the sake of you to shutting up.’ And it was not a big deal and the film turned out beautiful so…”

Born in October of 1949 on the southwest Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, Pascal cannot remember a time when she did not want to be an actress. Her mother was a bit skeptical, but her father saw she had imagination and flair and a deep love of history and its characters. “He would always say, ‘Oh, my little girl is going to be an great actress one day. Anyone can see that she’s going to be a little star,’” Pascal says. “My dad was very artistic and he took me to a lot of theater plays, a lot of operas. He educated me in ballet. Showed me more than you would ever expect possible, really, considering he died four days before my fifteenth birthday.” The actress goes quiet for a moment. “I miss him a lot. You know you come to miss your father quite a bit when you’re growing up as a teenager and all that. It’s a very delicate situation for a young girl. But he ingrained this artistic life in me at a very early age, and I’m going to carry it with me all of my days.

“My life hasn’t been bed of roses, in truth,” she continues. “So when doing plays or movies I would bring some of the loss I’ve experienced with me into a role. That’s when you truly realize acting is your life and not a hobby—when you can take what you’d endured and what goes on in your head and channel it positively into a role. It’s a nice part of the job—keeps you from having to pay to go to a psychiatrist.”

Despite the radiant brilliance of Pascal’s performance and the visionary storytelling of Rollin, The Iron Rose had a hard landing out beyond the cemetery gates.

“I remember going to the premiere of the film in Paris with my late ex-boyfriend,” Pascal says. “Very excited. And then about ten minutes in the boos began. And they only got louder. The audience, I think, was expecting his usual vampire film. The film nearly bankrupted him, I believe, because he mortgaged his house to do it. I had less at stake, but it was still a very disappointing time because I put my whole being into the film. The critics in France who never liked Jean, never appreciated Jean, did not bother to acknowledge something different was happening. They didn’t care to know. I will tell you this though: If I had a million dollars the day The Iron Rose came out I would’ve given it to Jean to make another movie just as bold, just as artistic, just so we could work together in that way again.”

Eventually Pascal would take a long hiatus from the film business, but not before further cementing her legacy through a diverse series of performances: Don Quixote with Rex Harrison. Summer & Smoke with Lee Remick. The hit British television series Mind Your Language. The Young & the Restless. Rosalind in As You Like It. Octavia in Anthony and Cleopatra. Olivia in Twelfth Night. Lightning the White Stallion with Mickey Rooney and Susan George.

“Then I came back to England where I like to think I followed happiness instead of money,” she says. After a quarter century in civilian life, however, Pascal released an autobiography in 2012 entitled As I Am and is not mixing it up on the other side of the camera. She is currently producing a feature-length thriller entitled Hide and Seek. “Would you believe me if I told you its about an assassin with a heart of gold,” she laughs.

Aside from a “very small part” in Hide and Seek, however, she considers herself mostly retired from acting. “I’m nearly 70 years old now,” she says. “I want to carry on—I love film; I love the business—but things change and I’m excited to be creative in different ways.”

As for The Iron Rose, it remains one of the most gratifying moments of her career. “I never would’ve expected while I was listening to those boos in the theater that our little film would one day be a beloved cult classic in America,” Pascal says. “Really now, screenings in New York, Hollywood? Astounding. It’s absolutely fantastic. And I’m still extremely proud. I only wish Jean were here to see it as well.”

Eat your heart out, Kirk Douglas.

The Iron Rose is playing at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan on Sunday as part of the epic program Très Outré: The Sinister Visions of Jean Rollin.