Thursday 7 August 2014

La Nuit La Plus Longe / ‘Sexus’
(José Bénazéraf, 1965)

Of all the eccentric directors who roamed the hinterlands between art and exploitation in European cinema through the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Moroccan-born, Paris-based José Bénazéraf (1922 – 2012) remains one of the more elusive. Lacking either the poetic earnestness of Rollin or the grindhouse ubiquity of Franco, denied the arthouse cred of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and without ever achieving a breakthrough hit like Larraz’s ‘Vampyres’, Bénazéraf is very much an outsider even within this crew of outsiders, and if Tombs & Tohill hadn’t seen fit to allot him space alongside his aforementioned peers in their definitive Immoral Tales, it seems likely that his work would have been entirely forgotten in the English-speaking world - instead of ALMOST entirely forgotten, as is currently the case.

Naturally, this very obscurity along piques my interest, and, having recently found a source for a few of Bénazéraf’s early movies, now seems a good point at which to jump in and see how this cat stacks up against the aforementioned pantheon. First up, 1965’s ‘La Nuit La Plus Longe’, also known as ‘L'enfer Dans La Peau’, which hit American shores the same year, distributed by Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films under the name ‘Sexus’ (a title perhaps pilfered from the Henry Miller book of the same name?)

‘La Nuit..’ was actually Bénazéraf’s fifth feature film as producer/writer/director – a fact that greatly surprised me, given that what transpires on screen often seems more like the work of some nineteen year old firebrand who just saw a Godard movie and grabbed the nearest camera, rather than that of an experienced independent filmmaker in his forties.

Thus the opening minutes here give us sharply angled, quasi-verité street footage, with a foxy dame (Virginie Solenn) wandering around Paris as bongo fury erupts on the soundtrack. For a while we’re completely in the dark re: context and genre, but when two guys eventually appear and poke a gun in her ribs, it becomes clear we’re looking at a CRIME STORY.

Bénazéraf’s potential inclusion in the nouvelle vague may be questionable beyond his appearance as “man in white car” in ‘À Bout de Souffle’ (thanks IMDB!), but hey, check out what we’ve got here so far: a girl and a gun. Like it or not, the sort of brutal, chauvinist minimalism that can be found peeping through the corners of Godard and Chabrol’s early work is delivered here in spades, as if José had taken Jean Luc’s famously misquoted maxim and run with it… even if the question of whether he was pursuing it for the sake of artistic expression or easy dough remains open for debate.

Soon, we’re settled into a familiar kidnap scenario at a criminal gang’s rural hideaway, and there is a certain audacity to the way that Bénazéraf, before even establishing his credentials with a glimpse of excitement or drama, already has us literally clock-watching along with his blank, cipher-like characters, as they sit around smoking, cracking open beer cans with a screwdriver and staring at the oversized cuckoo clock whose tick-tocking dominates much of the film’s soundtrack, awaiting the arrival of their boss.

In its early stages, the film seems at pains to evoke the contrived, poker-face pose of a street corner tough guy, as characters speak in muttered non-sequiturs, ignore each other’s questions, and generally fail to give us an inch. Except when they do, breaking the spell to clearly explain for our benefit that so-and-so will here in an hour and that the ransom must be paid by 4am and so forth – which is all a bit disappointing, given the gimlet-eyed audience stare-down that has proceeded it.

Gratuitous boobs and mildly eroticized violence proceed to push things firmly into the sexploitation/roughie bracket – Bénazéraf really spreading his net wide in terms of saleable genre elements - and basically at this point the whole thing becomes a cynical, psychosexual free-for-all; a kind of suspense-free ramble through the kind of “killers & victims in a confined location” set-up that would later be perfected in films like Polanski’s ‘Cul de Sac’ and Frederick Freidel’s ‘Axe’/’Lisa Lisa’. Thus, a series of menacing gestures, slow stripteases, theatrical knife fights and stammered confessional monologues ensue, with any thread of emotional/dramatic coherence rendered largely incidental.

Throughout the film, Bénazéraf taps straight into the core of base gangster movie instincts. The women dance and get naked, the men take care of business and get violent. Delighting in that peculiarly ‘off’ sense of fake-ness that seems to characterise action scenes in many low budget French films (though it looks like they put a lot of effort into the choreography of the big knife fight, bless ‘em), the intent seems to be to make clear that everything here is *performance* - vaguely pushing toward the very same kind of hipster-gangster metaphysical revelation that led former Paris resident Donald Cammell to cook up such extraordinary results just a few years later.

But anyway; that sad-eyed, sympathetic-yet-creepy looking fellow playing the gang boss - he looks familiar, doesn’t he? Why, yes, it’s Jean Rollin regular Willy Braque in an early role! What a lovely surprise. It’s always nice to see him. And the younger, handsomer dude swinging a touch of Delon-like charisma, he’s a pretty strong presence too. He actually looks a lot like an older version of John Moulder-Brown from ‘Deep End’, but he isn’t, obviously. (He is Alain Tissier, for the record, and he didn’t appear in any other films I’ve seen.)

Despite a music credit for Chet Baker being prominently displayed on posters, the soundtrack here seems like a pretty rum business too. In between stretches of silence and that infernal tick-tocking, we get snatches of mambo, jazz and African drumming that sound like they’ve probably been pulled straight from LPs in the director’s record collection, and copyright be damned. Baker’s own music only appears in the film’s more, uh, ‘sensuous’ moments, adding a touch of arty mystique to Solenn’s gamboling naked in the woods, and so forth.*

A particularly freaked out passage of exotica-esque tribal percussion and dissonant piano-bashing can be heard when the film takes a sudden, unscheduled leap away from the isolated kidnap scenario into a Franco-esque risque lesbian bondage act, observed by a bunch of people we’ve never seen before in the middle of one the most cramped looking faux-nightclub sets you ever saw. This thing really comes out of nowhere - no reason, no convincing context - but I’m kinda glad it did, because the psycho-sexual kidnap drama thing had just about run its course by this point, and, as with Franco, such kinky material really seems to kick-start Bénazéraf’s engines, leading to some wild low angle shots, snappy editing and coldly classy Helmut Berger-esque b & w photography, as a pair of dancers play out their act in the middle of the bar-room floor, with the louche patrons carefully stepping around them.

Whilst the faux-new wave pillow-talk sometimes gets a bit much, the film’s final twenty minutes, in which the kidnapped girl and the more handsome gangster evolve a kind of oblique relationship as they await their inevitable demise, works very well, achieving a kind of simple, utilitarian poignancy that almost manages to salvage the film’s more high-brow aspirations, in spite of its numerous instances of boredom, sleaze and silliness. As if realising he’s suddenly hit the right note, Bénazéraf then sadly proceeds to overplay his hand almost immediately, ploughing straight into cliché, as the sound of Baker’s lonesome horn accompanies Tissier’s existential, head-bowed walk toward across bare fields to greet his machine gun-delivered doom, at which point we freeze-frame, ‘Platoon’ poster style, as the credits roll. A little on the nose, you might say.

Overall, ‘La Nuit la Plus Longe’, gives the impression of José Bénazéraf being a bit of a chancer, but not necessarily in a bad way. More than any of the other loosely defined ‘art / exploitation’ directors, he really is poised on the knife edge between the two impulses, never really allowing viewers to settle safely into one mindset or the other. Those with a pre-existing belief that the director is a neglected visionary may take this as an uncomplimentary review, but that’s really not the case. Cynical though I may be about Bénazéraf’s true intentions, I enjoyed this film a great deal, and, though the results may be nowhere near as powerful or challenging, the general thrust of Bénazéraf’s approach strikes me as being as close to a madman like Koji Wakamatsu as it is to someone like, say, José Ramón Larraz.

Like Wakamatsu, Bénazéraf’s films (in this time period at least) have a free-wheeling, “anything could happen next” sort of vibe to them that I really appreciate. They seem like films made entirely out of sight of industry or authority, brazenly biting the hand that feeds them as they plough whatever miniscule amount of dog-eared cash was invested in their production into a kind of “we’ve got nothing to prove, we’ll film what the hell we like” anti-methodology that feels bracing and fun compared to the more tightly structured and critically picked over work of the era’s better known filmmakers.

That’s not to say that Bénazéraf is anything less than a canny technical operator – he has a great sense of filmic rhythm and a good eye for framing and photography – but there is nonetheless a kind of steely absurdity and uncertain, amateur hour thuggery to ‘La Nuit la Plus Longe’ that verges into an almost accidental kind of ramshackle movie poetry. Though difficult to really defend in terms of its artistic merit (however much it may strive for such recognition), this is strung out, marginal b-cinema at its finest – a warped postcard from the unmapped badlands of ‘60s Paris, where Cashiers de Cinema feared to tread - and I look forward to catching up with more of this peculiar filmmaker’s oeuvre post-haste.


* Chet Baker’s music here, I should add, is certainly an exquisitely ragged example of the trumpeter’s particular art, even if the clichéd visual accompaniment here perhaps does not showcase his talents to their best advantage. Music by Baker actually turned up in several early Bénazéraf films, presumably recorded whilst he was living in Paris, but I’m not really sure of the nature of their collaboration. Maybe they were best buddies and close collaborators, or maybe José just turned up at Chet’s hotel room one day with a tape recorder and a wad of smack money? Who knows. Answers in the comments please if you can enlighten us further.


Elliot James said...

Where can this be seen? Most of the websites that claim to have it are dangerous sites according to McAfee.

Thomas Nul said...

This film epitomizes Bénazéraf's early black and white period. Combining the brooding eroticism of L'éternité pour nous (1963) and crime/gangster elements of Le concerto de la peur (1963) this is for all intensive purposes where Bénazéraf really perfected his style making it a perfect starting place for someone unfamiliar with his world.

Its great to see someone giving coverage to Bénazéraf's films. Like Larraz he still really hasn't gotten his day on DVD (in the States at least). Very much look forward to reading your write-up's on some of his other films. I cannot recommend Frustration (1971) enough. Unquestionably his masterpiece and one of the greatest films to come out of the golden age of Euro sex/horror films.