Wednesday, July 29, 2009
It all began last year, near Istanbul, on the shore of The Black Sea. Or, at least I think it did...
While many films can be called hypnotic, few really have the ability to truly put their viewers into a near narcotic state of total dazed delirium. I’m sure every film lover can relate to what I am saying here, and I am sure the films that serve this blissful function are different for each of us. For me, I think about the first time I saw Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in a theater and felt at times like I was slipping under, as if I was undergoing some sort of astonishing cinematic procedure that I had no control over. I also remember stumbling out of the theater after viewing Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides that first wonderful time, and feeling like I could barely walk because I was just intoxicatingly numb all over. There’s more of course, ranging from Antonioni’s The Passenger to Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising, but the number of works that, to paraphrase Cerys Matthews, that have let me both beautifully dazed and gratefully bruised are few…Jess Franco’s hypnotic 1969 miracle of film Venus in Furs is one of those works.
Lately I have been wondering if Franco is occupying a different place in cinema history than the first time I discovered him in the early to mid nineties. After all the man is now a much deserved Goya winner and Venus in Furs astonishingly recently played on Turner Classic Movies, a showing that no doubt gave many the first shot of Uncle Jess they had ever had. Thinking on it though, Franco at his most combative will never gain the approval of most ‘film-lovers’, and perhaps that is the way it should for one of cinema’s true maverick visionaries. That word ‘maverick’ has been thrown around a lot in the past few years, and often in a totally wrong context, but it is a perfect word to descibe Jess Franco and his totally unique way of looking through a lens and projecting his inner-most desires, dreams and sometimes nightmares for anyone watching to take part in.
Venus in Furs isn’t my favorite Jess Franco film, nor do I consider it among his very best but there is something about that completely sucks me in every time I watch it the way few other films do. It's an amazing experience from the iconic opening shot of Maria Rohm (whose dark stare is only rivaled by Soledad Miranda in Franco’s canon), to the film’s haunting opening lines spoken by James Darren that cue the viewer immediately they we are in for what is going to be a very strange ride, to the film’s final devastating moments that culminate in a lonely scene on a beach before exploding in a beautiful montage played under Barbara McNair’s powerful theme song. Venus in Furs is perhaps not the masterpiece some fans have labeled it as, but it is an ideal entry way into the world of Jess Franco…and for those who fall under its spell there won’t be an easy way out.
Every time I watch Venus in Furs I try very hard to pick up pieces and notice things that I haven’t before. It’s a hard task as it is a bit like staying awake under some heavy anesthesia, as Franco’s twisted tale of the haunted Wanda Reed (played with a perfect passionate precision by Rohm) apparently back from the dead to act out her revenge on the group that killed her is beyond mesmerizing. I can’t help but falling under the spell of Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg’s dazzling score, the undeniable charisma of Franco’s players (including former teen idol James Darren, McNair, Margaret Lee and of course Klaus Kinski), and Franco’s ingenious storyline that owes more than a bit to films as different as Carnival of Souls to the sixties work of Alain-Robbe Grillet. I try to view Venus in Furs with sober eyes, but I can’t do it and, in all honesty, I don't even really want to.
Looking past the dazzling visuals, beautiful cast and knock-out soundtrack, Venus in Furs has been a remarkably influential work for one that is so rarely mentioned. No one will ever convince me that David Lynch didn’t see Franco’s film at least sometime in his life, as trace elements of Venus in Furs can be found in everything from Fire Walk With Me (I was struck this last viewing how a ferociously suspenseful and masterfully edited scene involving Lee and Rohm has more than a passing similarity to the infamous strobe light bar sequence in Fire Walk With Me) to especially Lost Highway, whose baffling mind-fuck of a non-linear story of confused trumpeter haunted by a lost love owes more than just a little debt to Franco’s majestically strange work. The connections between Venus and Furs and Lynch have been mentioned before, and hopefully someday someone will the a closer look the correlations deserve.
There are other easy connections to make besides Lynch. While the ending of Venus in Furs itself owes more than passing debt to Robbe-Grillet’s incredible first feature The Immortal, few will able to watch the last few minutes of Franco's film now without thinking of The Sixth Sense. I was also struck this past viewing by an eerie moment in Franco’s work that nearly perfectly mirrors the final shot in Picnic at Hanging Rock…a coincidence perhaps but the shot of Maria Rohm silently mouthing some, probably crucial, words to James Darren before turning to the right in slow motion before disappearing perfectly foreshadows lovely Anne Lambert’s final moments in Weir’s remarkable film.
It also struck me recently rewatching Venus in Furs that, while it is typically labeled as an exploitation film that really pushed the envelope as far as sex, nudity and violence goes, it is actually a much more profound barrier pushing work than most have ever given credit for. Franco deserves a serious round of applause for the inter-racial relationship he presents between Darren and McNair in a sexual way that sadly few filmmakers in the shadow of Martin Luther King’s death would dare show. Even more noteworthy is the fact that the most sympathetic and (literally) alive character in the film is McNair, whose voice and role guide the film from beginning to end. The late McNair (who appeared in the terrific Change of Habit opposite Elvis Presley also in 1969) is one of the sixties most overlooked and important entertainers, and her ground-breaking LPs and film role are both well worth rediscovering.
Also noteworthy is Margaret Lee’s character Olga. Presented at first in the same negative light lesbians were often shown in this period, if they were presented at all, Franco turns the tables on Lee’s character in the film and makes her unexpectedly the most sympathetic and human of his murderous villains. Lee (always so terrific) gives a very solid and ultimately moving turn and, with her character, Franco (whose cinema has always reflected a raw equality even at its seediest) seems to be flipping a defiant finger at the prejudiced norms of the day. Venus in Furs is a groundbreaking work indeed.
Like I said, I don’t think Venus in Furs is finally among Jess Franco’s greatest films. The stock Rio carnival footage has been pointed out before as a distraction that only pads the running time and that is a valid complaint, and if there is one film in his canon that I wish he could have spent more time on then I it is Venus in Furs, as it sometimes slips from utterly dreamlike to just confused. Flaws be damned though (give the guy a break as Franco shot an astonishing seven features for producer Harry Alan Towers the year he made this!), Venus in Furs is one of Jess Franco’s most representative films and, at its best, one of his most important.
For those who haven’t fallen under its spell yet, may I please recommend Blue Underground’s beautiful DVD, which features a lovely widescreen transfer as well as insightful interviews with both Franco and Rohm. And yes, the film is now officially part of TCM’s library, something that I don’t think even the most hopeful Jess Franco fans ever expected.
A Lot has been written about Venus in Furs, including some pieces by some of my favorite writers. I am actually always hesitant to write about Franco, as he is such a complex figure and I still haven’t even seen half of his mammoth filmography that numbers in the hundreds. Please check out Tim Lucas’ tremendous take on the film in Video Watchdog 119, where he points out the films flaws and virtues with much more clarity than I could ever hope to. Tim also delves into the trouble Franco had with Towers and where Venus in Furs places in the director’s huge filmography. May I also recommend the historic chapter on Franco in the essential Tohill and Tombs book Immoral Tales, still one of the best overviews of the man ever presented. I was also hoping to mention an article I read in the mid nineties detailing some more connections Venus in Furs had to Lost Highway, but sadly I can’t locate it nor can I remember which publication it came from. I know the excellent Brad Stevens mentioned the connection in his terrific 1997 Flesh and Blood article Discovering David Lynch`s Lost Highway but I could have sworn there was another that made the connections more specific. Any help jogging my memory would be greatly appreciated.