Tuesday, 5 March 2013
‘Die Marquise von Sade’, ‘Le Portrait de Doriana Gray’, ‘Le Porno Storia della Marchesa De Sade’.
“I hinted at the calamity of my birth – that will have to suffice.”
Jess Franco’s career has seen him dabble in an unholy array of genres and styles over the years, but if you were to ask me hand on heart where his greatest contribution to cinema lies, I’d probably point toward the series of often quite disturbing psychological sex films he made in early/mid-70s, mostly under the auspices of producer Robert de Nesle, and with Lina Romay front and centre in the cast list. Building on the template he’d established with his career-defining late ‘60s run of erotic horror/thrillers, but pushing things in ever more extreme and obsessive directions as censorship loosened and budgets lessened, this vague series could be said to include ‘Lorna The Exorcist’, ‘Sinner’, ‘The Obscene Mirror’, ‘Shining Sex’, and, later, ‘Macumba Sexual’. But the unsavoury carnal fixations Franco was exploring in these films arguably reached their peak of expression with the title we’re looking at today – a contender for the most intensely claustrophobic and fleshy entry in the entire Franco filmography… which is saying something.
Generally speaking, the films Franco made for Erwin Deitrich in the latter half of the ‘70s mark the point at which he abandoned the more personal / experimental streak that had prevailed earlier in the decade, and began churning out tawdry exploitation and cheap genre exercises in earnest. There are definitely some noteworthy exceptions though, and ‘Doriana..’ ranks highest among them. It seems likely it was shot around the same time as ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ (most of the same cast reappear with the same haircuts, and the locations & cinematography seem fairly similar), but, oh, what a difference!
“For as long I can remember, I’ve been living in the chateau… when I go for walks after long, lonely, dreamless night, I hear no human voices, only the laughter of a mocking bird..”
As you might reasonably expect, only the flimsiest suggestion of Oscar Wilde’s novel survives in this tale of siamese twins (both played by Lina Romay), separated at birth in a botched operation that we’re told resulted in both ‘damaged nerve fibres’ and ‘lost minds’.
Unscathed on the surface at least, Lady Doriana has grown up to become a reclusive aristocrat and mythic sexual libertine, but her mentally deficient twin, long forgotten by everyone, hasn’t been quite so lucky. Confined to an asylum in what seems to be a perpetual state of delusional sexual frenzy, she is a howling mad, naked wretch – the reverse mirror image of Doriana’s outwardly icy, refined demeanour, her rampant id personified in full fury.
As Doriana drifts through life, wrestling with loneliness and her inability to truly ‘feel’ anything in the course of her frequent, impersonal sexual encounters, she finds herself becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the malign psychic influence of her ‘shadow’, and when her lovers begin to die at the point of climax, their life energies drained and consumed, well… obviously we’re talking about a Jess Franco film here, so a bit of self control, some long walks in the country and cold showers etc, are not really on the menu.
In terms of Franco genealogy, ‘Doriana Gray’ recycles much of its general business from ‘Female Vampire’ (the lone aristocratic wonderer who leaves her lovers dead, the presence of an intrusive reporter, the mixture of frenzied sex scenes and brooding, ethereal weirdness etc.), and its basic plot-line would soon be re-worked in far more light-weight fashion for the self-explanatory ‘Sexy Sisters’. Despite this though, ‘Doriana..’, like all of Franco’s best films, is very much its own beast – a wholly unique experience, even as it rampages over territory that will prove over-familiar to even the director’s more casual fans.
“Don’t go… stay here and look… I have a little mound, and a valley deeper than the village well, and breasts you could crack an egg on..”
It is a common line of thinking when looking at the emergence of explicit sex films in the ‘70s to see them as essentially stifling the creativity of the filmmakers who chose to partake in them – killing all momentum stone-dead, reducing potentially talented directors to mere camera pointers, filming ugly, static camera fuck scenes when they could be doing something far better with their time, and so on and so forth.
Doubtless there were some individuals for whom this was the case (Jean Rollin is perhaps a good example), but the establishment of a viable market for pornographic films actually seems to have had the opposite effect on Jess Franco, allowing him to get straight to the heart (or rather, straight to the crotch) of what really made him tick, as the distant and sometimes distracted feel of his ‘60s work began to mutate into something both far more graphic and far more emotionally involving, resulting in a crude but startlingly uncompromising form of low budget cinema – unsettlingly perverse, genuinely erotic and so relentlessly voyeuristic that even Europe’s most dedicated porno freaks must have started to wish he’d pull the bloody camera back for a bit of fresh air every now and then.
In essence I think, Franco was (and hopefully still is) an old fashioned sensualist – a man who lives for the pleasures of music, food, culture, cinema, travel, and women. (And, whatever you might think of his movies, you’ve got to at least admire the way he managed to shape his career as a film director into a routine that allowed him to indulge all of these passions on a regular basis.)
It is natural therefore that his more personal films should reflect this approach to life. And as he reached what the more pretentious amongst us might wish to term his ‘mature style’ in the early ‘70s, it is hardly surprising that he should begin to address the ugly shadows that are always lurking in the corner when decadent behaviour is taken to extremes.* Y’know - mental and physical collapse, guilt and moral turpitude, addiction and loss of sensation, madness, despair – that sort of thing. Not a path that’s often much explored by conventional pornography, for obvious reasons, but the genius of a film like ‘Doriana Gray’ is that it manages to cut right to the quick of such heavy subject matter whilst still functioning as lusty, grade A erotica that leaves 90% of the other filmmakers attempting such stuff in the dust.
Much of the credit for allowing the film to successfully straddle (if you will) this gap between arousal and disgust lies of course with the wonderful Ms Romay. I don’t know whether I’ve thus far had a chance in these reviews to pay tribute to the astonishing presence Lina Romay brings to Franco’s ‘70s films… but then I don’t know if the feeling conveyed by her performances in movies like this one can even really be communicated in words. I mean, I’m not usually the kind of guy to get all misty-eyed about actresses in adult movies and so forth, but - those who have seen her in ‘Female Vampire’ or ‘Lorna’ or even the Dietrich-directed ‘Rolls Royce Baby’ will know what I’m getting at.
It would be easy to put the strength of her performances down to her apparent exhibitionistic tendencies and seemingly endless enthusiasm for appearing in this kind of material (a rare virtue indeed in the patriarchal and oft-abusive world of smutty movies), but I don’t know if that quite covers it. Let’s just say that Lina operates on a whole other level from anyone else I have ever seen try to do ‘sexy’ in front of a movie camera. Even when it in the midst of the ‘action’, she seems able to unleash a reservoir of raw, amped up emotion that goes way beyond the standard male-fantasy moves usually demanded by such scenes. Without wishing to labour the point, I would defy anyone of a woman-fancying persuasion – hell, anyone period – to sit through one of her peak-era performances without experiencing *some* kind of strong reaction. If not necessarily sexual arousal, then fear, unease, mesmerism, hilarity, repulsion and wordless fascination are all equally valid responses, just as they are valid responses to Franco’s cinema as a whole. But just like his camera, you won’t be able to ignore her, that’s for sure.
And speaking of Franco’s ever-roaming phallic gaze, ‘Doriana..’ is also notable for taking the director’s penchant for genital close ups to a level of absolute insanity, frequently zooming to the point of utter pubic oblivion, ensuring that Lina’s bush gets as many close-ups as her face. Actually, one or the other of them is on screen for practically the entire movie, an approach that could have taken on a horribly invasive quality in the hands of most other filmmakers, but as is often the case, Jess’s fleshy obsessions play out here in a manner than seems more worshipful than demeaning, and that fits the film’s densely claustrophobic, internalised narrative pretty well.
That said, I’m afraid there are some pretty grim moments here too (in particular, a grisly hetero scene between Raymond Hardy and Martine Stedil nearly made me lose my lunch), but whenever Lina is on screen in either of her incarnations, the sparks fly. 4/5
“Tell me, is this girl in the clinic of the mysterious Dr. Orlof your sister? Is she insane? Is she a nymphomaniac?”
As was discussed in my review of ‘Macumba Sexual’, what makes Jess Franco’s particular brand of sex-horror films work so well is that, rather than presenting us with a horror film plus some sex (or vice versa), he hits us head-first with a scenario in which the sex IS the horror, internalised within the characters partaking of it.
In these films, sexual dementia (as a symptom of Franco’s preferred notion of carnal vampirism) seems to travel through the air like some kind of psychic plague, emanating from the ‘bearers’ (Doriana and her twin) and possessing each character in turn, as logic crumbles, naked writhing becomes an epidemic and the world becomes a very frightening and disorientating place indeed, reality reduced to “an incoherent nightmare of sex”, to borrow a choice phrase from the Westminster Gazette’s memorable dismissal of Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’.
Although the deaths of Doriana’s lovers are pretty perfunctory here – more implied than graphically depicted – it is the sex scenes that surround them, and Lina’s performances within them, that form the main source of the horror, as we’re treated (and/or subjected) to perhaps Romay’s single most unhinged, uninhibited performance in a career full of unhinged, uninhibited performances – a visceral and terrifying portrayal of mental collapse that sometimes cuts too close for comfort, channeling a nameless catharsis worthy of a Zulawski film.
As befits ‘Doriana Gray’s schizophrenic themes, the film’s overall effect relies heavily on Lina’s trademark move of shifting her expression in a split second from euphoric ecstasy to pain, to mindless screaming madness - capturing the viewer off-guard in that awful, frozen moment when the music warps or vanishes in a strangulated echo effect, as our assumption that you’re watching a decadent, easy-going sex scene falls away, twisting a knot in our stomach as we’re forced to suddenly recalibrate our expectations, before we look back again and realise that Doriana is panting, staring blindly with glazed eyes, drooling on the corpse of her partner, as the camera cuts to her incarcerated sister’s inhuman primal scream… oof.
In between these encounters, the atmosphere cools off, and we’re treated (in the rather bizarre English dub at least) to an eerie, monotone voiceover that works to effectively somnambulant effect, elucidating Doriana’s thoughts in the form of some rather Poe-like brooding soliloquys, as she explains her understanding of her sister’s psychic domination in terms of a gothic curse, outlining the long history of genius, melancholy and madness that have tormented the women of her family for generations, taking a leaf or two from Vincent Price in ‘House of Usher’ in the process, and rather unexpectedly investing the film with a rich, ennui-wracked gothic tone, reminiscent of Franco’s earlier ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’. 4/5
“A lady as smart as you are, who owns a whole publishing house for erotic memoirs, isn’t gonna indulge in tiddlywinks..”
Not much doing from this angle I fear. In the film’s lighter moments there’s certainly fun to be had with the goofy English dub (see the quotes at the top of these sections), and with the idea of a world where reclusive aristocratic publishers of erotic memoirs engage in off-the-cuff lesbian seductions at the drop of a hat. But relentless genital close-ups and screaming, demonic hysteria do rather tend to distract from the ol’ pulp thrills I find. 1/5
“I am endowed with an unlimited lust for pleasure, which is the secret of eternal youth..”
Mention must initially be made of the incredible, minimalist sitar-rocking score from Walter Baumgartner**, mainly consisting of just a few languid, resonating notes that repeat throughout the film, hanging in the air like some attempt at a melodic progression left forever unresolved as its composer drifted off into stoned slumber.
Also contributing to a heavy-ass psychedelic atmosphere are all the usual tricks Franco utilises to squeeze as much oppressive disorientation out of his tropical paradise locations as he possible can: palpable heat haze, abstract close-ups and drifting, variable focus. Blinding, overlit sunshine and black, impenetrable shadows (often combined in the same shot). Baroque mirror shots fill the screen with jagged, conflicting angles whilst distant, fuzzy yachts bob back and forth on the tide of the picture-book harbour, as all the time that infernal sitar twangs away, never quite finding the right note it needs to finish things off.
Soon even the genital close-ups begin to take on an abstract, alien character, as frantic zoom shots fill the screen with beige blurs, strange goose-pimpled landscapes and stray pubic hairs curling in the foreground like spider webs, as Franco's lust inspires him to simultaneously break every conceivable rule of cinematic etiquette.
On the soundtrack meanwhile, a constant, deafening chatter of canned birdcalls, hooting owls and mewling cats mixes with the hypnotic voiceovers of the English dub track, as Lina’s vocal stand-in recites verses from a totally tripped out Wickerman-style plain song nursery rhyme (“Your hands wave like a bird’s wings, but they cannot grasp the stars”).
One particularly incredible moment combines all of this, as thunder rolls overhead and the creepy singing continues, as Franco zeros in on a rainbow shining in an overcast sky above a row of slummy looking apartment buildings, contrasted with a monolith-like fern leaf (or maybe it’s an overturned parasol or something?) in the foreground. The camera pulls back to reveal Lina’s shadowed form, encased entirely in shadow as she walks forward, away from us… “your rainbow coloured eyes… dive into the blinding light..” intones the disembodied voice as the shape of Lina’s fuzzy black breasts depart stage left and the camera zooms further into the clouds and the slowly fading rainbow…
I hear Kubrick’s people put a lot of time and effort into that hyper-space sequence from the end of ‘2001’. Franco just grabbed his camera one day and looked out of the hotel window. I think I’m give them about a draw in the psychedelic stakes. 5/5
I’m not sure where ‘Doriana Gray’ was shot, but the setting has a tropical sort of look to it that adds weight to my theory that it was filmed back to back with ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ in Central America, or possibly the Caribbean. The scenes set inside Doriana’s chateau though also recall the kind of Moorish splendour Franco often captured so well in Spanish and Portuguese locales – especially the echoing marble entrance hall, wrought iron railings etc. – but I guess it’s equally possible that such architecture might have been replicated in some grand, colonial outpost across the Atlantic or whatever. So the jury’s out, but it’s all pretty nice to look at anyway. 3/5
If you’ll allow me a bit of a generalisation, most of the international film industry’s attempts to sell ‘sophisticated’ erotic films to a wider audience during the 1970s were a total bore, producing movies that were tacky, thoughtless and decidedly un-erotic, irrespective of the veneer of ‘class’ that was crow-barred into them. What a difference then to witness Jess Franco at the top of his game here, working pretty much single-handedly with extremely limited means and singularly grimy technique, but managing to craft a sex film that is visually stunning, emotionally devastating, thematically coherent, and that could probably give a corpse a hard-on. That it probably never got an airing outside of the kind of unimaginable flea-pit porno houses that presumably ran these Deitrich hardcore flicks, whilst down the road semi-respectable citizens could have been flocking to see some worn out Emmanuelle/Story of O derivative, is something of a tragedy, if a wholly predictable one.
I mean, in many ways this is a pretty difficult film to watch, and probably something of a head-fuck for those unfamiliar with Franco’s general mode of operation; but for any existing fans out there who’ve yet to see this one, be assured that it’s just about the most uncompromising, undiluted dose of Franco genius business you could hope to find from the mid ‘70s, and pretty much a definitive statement of where he was heading through the first half of that decade.
*Not that I believe Franco himself ever took his behaviour to extremes, I should make clear – as far as I’m aware, he has always been a very moderate, well behaved and agreeable sort of fellow. In fact in some ways, you might say that the true genius of his life lies in the way he found a legitimate excuse to spend about thirty years hanging out in tropical beauty spots, listening to hot jazz and staring at naked ladies all day, without ever even having to act like a jerk.
** Herr Baumgartner appears to have provided music for pretty much every Erwin Dietrich related Swiss/German sex film released between 1970 and 1990, leading me to initially suspect he might be a pseudonym used to cover for the use of recycled and/or library music. But an earlier career scoring German b-movies, and the IMDB-provided knowledge that he born in Switzerland in 1904 and died there in 1997, would tend to suggest he was in fact a real composer, so, uh, good on him I suppose. It’s not often you get to hear a porno soundtrack written by an 80 year old survivor of two world wars.