...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A few words about Jess Franco

He wasn't as sadistic as D'Amato, dramatic as Argento, aggressive as Fulci, moody as Bava, or formally erotic as Rollin.  He didn't have the talent of any of those directors, save D'Amato.  But he was more productive than all of them put together.  He made movies, arguably more movies than anyone else over the last fifty years.

IMDB really isn't of much use when trying to get a count of Jesus (Jess) Franco's films.  It shows his directorial count at 199.  But for each Die Marquise von Sade, there was a Doriana Gray.  It wasn't just an alternate title.  It was a completely different film.  Same actors, same sets, more or less the same plot, but different scenes, different mood, different characters, different languages, different endings.

Then there are the title issues.  Female Vampire was known as Erotikill, Erotic Kill, The Loves of Irina,  Insatiable Lust, Bare Breasted Countess, Les avaleuses, La comtesse noire, and a dozen other names that all more or less depict the subject well.  Yet among these titles are at least four different versions of the same movie.  But more on this in a moment.

Franco's first very productive period was during the late 60's through mid '70s.  The Italian giallo genre was extremely popular throughout Europe, so he tried his hand at that.  The sex film went mainstream, so he tried his hand at that.  European spy films, women in prison films, slasher films, satanic films, zombie films.  He took a swing at all of those genres, sometimes all in the same movie.

The artistic merit of the script, photography, editing, and direction was never the motivation for his audience's attendance.  The women, from Soledad Miranda to Maria Rohm, were reason we watched.  They were the main characters.  They were the side characters.  They were the bit parts.  One of these women stood out in particular.  Franco's wife, Lina Romay.

Lina wasn't a classic cinema beauty.  She had a considerable overbite, a more considerable posterior, a round tummy, and yellowy pale skin.  But she committed to her art.  Fully.  Her pubic region was one of the most surveyed in the history of cinema, albeit in a poorly lit and out of focus fashion.  She ran barefoot and naked through forests and over rocks, tackling, pummeling, shrieking, and occasionally raping her fellow cast members.  (Not to mention what she did to the cast's members.)  She read every line as if it was written by Ibsen and directed by Bergman.  And did everything EVERYTHING the project called for her to do.  As a result, she commands the screen every time she leaps into frame, the rest of the mise en scene melting away behind her.  Even in Franco's weakest films, Romay always had something to offer.

"You want me to do what?"
Female Vampire, one of Franco's better known films, succeeds because of her.  The film's conceit: Countess Irina, the last of her vampiric kind, fellates men to death.  Simple idea, and simply foolish if one thinks about it for too long.  I have thought about it for too long. (This subject seemed to be of interest to Franco, as Romay's characters murder men in this fashion in a handful of his other films.)  One would figure a single bite would be sufficient, but instead an actual orgasm is required......though this is never fully explained.  (By the way, men aren't alone in this as Irina services a woman to death as well.)

All of this could be easily captured in a straightforward porn film, but the most widely distributed version of Female Vampire is instead a soft-core film.  This would prove to be quite a challenge for any director.  To (terribly) paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, once two actual genitals start rubbing against each other, a fiction film becomes a documentary.  It is extremely difficult to depict graphic sexual content without losing one's viewer to thoughts separate from the plot.

Franco demonstrates his ability to meet this cinematic challenge in the film's first shot.  The Countess Irina, clothed only in a cape and belt, stalks through a mist-cloaked forest.  She strides slowly towards the viewer, almost floating into the foreground.  Her sensual dark eyes lock on us.  She approaches predatory, confident, commanding.  Until she bumps into the camera.

The film's inability to capture the sadness and emptiness inherent in a life like Irina's doesn't render it limp.  Though the script, editing, and lighting fall short of many YouTube cat videos, Franco can still frame a shot and Romay takes his direction as far as emotionally and physically possible.

I would love to recommend Doriana Grey for Romay's genuinely bravado performance as a pair of twins engaging in sexual thrills while struggling with deep mental anguish.  But I can't.  It's not a quality issue.  Instead, almost all of Franco's films are unavailable in the US.  I spent a number of years going through Cinefile Video's Eurosleaze imports -- some of them were filmed with Spanish actors, overdubbed in Russian with German subtitles -- probably the best video store collection of Franco's work, and still got through only 20+ films.  None of them make for easy viewing, though Vampyros Lesbos is pretty cool with its slinky gals and groovy soundtrack.  Macumba Sexual has a solid and consistent visual style.  Venus in Furs can be a trippy treat.  Both "Eugenie" films keep to their stories well (and have pretty ladies).  And there's the aforementioned Female Vampire.  If you can find any of the stronger versions, they make for less (or more?) silly viewing.

But if you do like any of those filmmakers I mentioned at the top of the post, or enjoy flawed threadbare but aggressive filmmaking, and you find any of his stuff available to rent, give it a spin.  (You can drop me a line here too, in case you have any questions or if you know where to get some of the alternate editions.)
I may jest about the quality of Franco's work, but he was and is not merely a guilty pleasure for me.  He made movies.  Script, funding, and casting problems proved no match for this man.  Even if he didn't have any original footage, he'd re-cut a bunch of scenes from his other films into a brand new one and release it in a different European market.  That is bold.  That is commitment.  That is showmanship.  That is cinema without boundaries.  When Jess Franco passed away last week at age 82, having just directed another film (of course), the world lost one of its great filmmakers.  I encourage anyone with the means to get his work back out into the world for all of us to see.