Venus in Furs/Paroxismus (1969/1970) ***
Jesus Franco loves jazz. Unless you understand that, and until you’ve thought it through to some of its more obscure implications, you’re never really going to get a handle on his career as a whole. I don’t mean merely that Franco’s love for jazz explains his tendency to employ it in the soundtracks to his films, or his seemingly boundless affection for nightclub scenes in which it is more often than not the entertainers’ main mode of expression. Franco’s taste in music does explain those things, of course, but they’re only the most superficial examples of the importance of jazz in his movies. No, what I’m saying is that the structures, assumptions, and techniques of jazz are mirrored in how Franco approaches all his work as a writer and director. To a greater extent than any other form of popular music in my acquaintance, jazz belongs to the arranger more than the composer. It emphasizes theme and improvisation over the song as written, and consequently bestows a uniquely privileged status upon “standards”— that is, upon songs that everybody knows, that everybody plays, and that paradoxically become the means whereby musicians establish their individuality. The operative theory is basically, “Yeah, you’ve heard eleven million versions of ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ but you ain’t heard it the way I do it yet.” Jesus Franco plays the standards, too, and his filmography is laden with themes on which he seemingly never tires of varying. He’s made Frankenstein movies, Dracula movies, Fu Manchu movies, and Dr. Mabuse movies. He riffs constantly on the plot and characters of The Awful Dr. Orlof, and returns almost obsessively to the premise of two sexy girls having madcap adventures— the concept at the heart of his debut feature, We Are 18 Years Old. He even has character names that crop up again and again, so often that they almost have to mean something to him: his Lindas, his Lornas, his Irinas, his Morphos. In short, Franco has a jazzman’s notion of creativity, seeing no cause for embarrassment in playing the same well-worn melodies over again in different keys, different tempos, different instrumentations, different time signatures. And of course there’s another thing jazz players are noted for, or at least used to be back when they were still the acknowledged bad boys of the music world. From time to time, you could count on them to light up a great, big doob, and go noodling off on some free-form experiment of obscure meaning and impenetrable construction. Franco often appears to be doing that as well. Venus in Furs is one of Franco’s free-form experiments. Although it takes its title from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s notorious 19th-century philosophical porn novel, it draws no content from the book save a bit of imagery— and the uses to which Franco puts that imagery are more Sadean than Masochesque, anyway.
Trumpeter Jimmy Logan (City Beneath the Sea’s James Darren) found a dead girl once, washed up on a beach near Istanbul. He’s not exactly sure when that was, but other people whose heads are screwed on tighter than his— including Inspector Kaplan of the Istanbul police (Adolfo Lastretti, from Spasmo and Shaft in Africa)— put it about two years ago. The deceased wasn’t just some stranger, either, but somebody Jimmy had at least sort of known. Her name was Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm, of The Bloody Judge and House of 1000 Dolls), and she was a regular at the lounge in the jet set hotel where Jimmy had a steady gig as part of the house band. Jimmy was crazy about her, but he had no illusions about his chances. Not only was Wanda just way out of his league, but she was also involved in some kind of ongoing menage-a-quatre with three of the hotel’s most glamorous guests: millionaire playboy Ahmet Kortobawi (Klaus Kinski, from Dead Eyes of London and Schizoid), art dealer Percival Kapp (Dennis Price, of Horror House and Curse of the Voodoo), and a fashion photographer known only as Olga (Margaret Lee, from The Killers Are Our Guests and House of Pleasure). One night, envy and curiosity teamed up to get the better of Jimmy, and he followed the group at a discreet distance when they left the lounge after the show. Whatever he imagined he’d see, it certainly wasn’t the brutally rough three-on-one in a dungeon-like basement that actually confronted him. It was the kind of thing he’d be happier not knowing about, and he slipped away after just a few minutes of increasingly agitated perving. The following morning, Wanda washed up on that beach, and Jimmy realized that he had witnessed the prelude to a murder.
Jimmy’s conscience smacked him down hard at that point, but if he ever seriously considered going to the police, he gives no outward indication. I suppose I can understand why. After all, he didn’t actually see Wanda killed, and these are wealthy, presumably powerful people we’re talking about. Jimmy, meanwhile, is what? A nightclub trumpet-player? Besides, if Ahmet, Percival, and Olga are the type to murder a girl for kicks, what might they be willing to do in order to keep that a secret? So rather than doing the right thing, Jimmy did the safe thing, and split town. He wandered all over Europe for a while, so tortured by guilt that he couldn’t even bring himself to play music anymore, then eventually came to rest in Rio de Janeiro, just in time for Carnival. That’s an interesting coincidence, because Jimmy’s longtime friend and sometime lover, Rita (Barbara McNair), is in Rio, too, singing at a club owned by another acquaintance of Jimmy’s by the name of Herman (Paul Muller, from Nightmare Castle and Devil in the Flesh— the latter of which really is based on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs!). Rita gets Jimmy’s head straightened out some, and soon he’s playing trumpet again in Herman’s house band. It’s just like the good old days in Istanbul, before that nasty business with Wanda.
Then Wanda shows up, just as if it really were Istanbul, and nothing had ever happened to her. And unlike the original Wanda, this doppelganger finds Jimmy both interesting and attractive. Despite being justly creeped out, and despite the friction it produces between him and Rita, Jimmy strikes up an affair with Wanda Mk II, and is soon happier than he’s been in ages. He might have second thoughts, though, if he could see what was happening back in Turkey. Percival Kapp receives a visitation from an amorous Wanda lookalike, too, and it goes fatally bad for him. Granted, Kapp’s new Wanda is more spectral than Logan’s, and the trumpeter has already managed to take his copy to bed a few times with no ill effects. Still, I’m thinking revenant. When Olga also shows up in Rio, Jimmy’s Wanda seduces her as if in a trance directed by forces larger and stronger than her own will. At the climactic moment of their coupling, Wanda transforms into a mutilated and waterlogged corpse— and although Olga doesn’t die immediately of shock the way Percival did, she does retreat to the bathtub a moment later to slit her wrists. Wanda then informs Jimmy that she wants to return to Istanbul. Obviously that means she’s gunning for Ahmet now, but consider… Why do you suppose Jimmy was the first person to whom the risen Wanda appeared? Or more to the point, why do you suppose she appeared to him at all? Clearly revenge is her business on the mortal plane, but Logan wasn’t a party to her murder. Then again, he isn’t entirely innocent of it, either, now is he? Might the warrant for Wanda’s campaign of trans- dimensional vengeance be broad enough to embrace witnesses who could have saved her, but didn’t?
Mind you, Venus in Furs isn’t nearly as linear as I’ve just made it sound. Its story sort of wobbles in time, often with only the most subtle of clues (what shirt Jimmy Logan is wearing, for example) to indicate quite when a particular scene is supposed to take place. Scene transitions often seem to have more to do with mood or imagery than with ordinary narrative concerns, especially during the final act. Indeed, the whole terminal Istanbul-based phase of the film is so deliberately opaque that it’s open to several completely different readings as regards what happens to whom when and how. From what I’ve seen, this allusive, elliptical, almost symbolic approach to storytelling was a relatively new development for Franco when Venus in Furs was made. Succubus, from the preceding year, is an obvious antecedent, and The Girl from Rio a slightly less obvious one, but Venus in Furs has much more to tell us about where Franco was going than it does about where he had been. There’s barely any trace here of the Awful Dr. Orlof Franco, of the journeyman filmmaker recombining old ideas imported from Hollywood into strange but still recognizable chimeras. With this, his last film of the 60’s, Franco is warning us of how wild and unfettered his work will become in the 70’s.
Venus in Furs’ transitional status is underscored by the interesting mismatch (or at any rate, what looks in retrospect like a mismatch) between the flaky experimentalism of its style and its relatively conventional degree of technical gloss. For all its baffling structural recursiveness and refusal to conform to any then-current set of genre expectations, this looks and sounds much more like a normal movie than would later Franco productions like A Virgin Among the Living Dead or The Bare-Breasted Countess. I suspect that we have producer Harry Alan Towers to thank for that. Towers was probably the closest thing the British movie industry ever produced to a David Friedman or a Kroger Babb, a larger-than-life sleaze mogul who was forever embroiled in some manner of trouble. My favorite Towers story is the one about him jumping bail in New York after he and his girlfriend (a prostitute whom the Hearst newspapers credited, if you can call it that, with having once entertained Senator John F. Kennedy) were busted for operating a call girl ring for the benefit of United Nations diplomats and their staffs; the girlfriend, apparently angling for a sweet plea-bargain with the FBI, accused Towers of being a Soviet spy! Whatever else we may say about Towers, though, he was both ambitious and realistic as a movie producer. Sure, he was willing to let Franco experiment, but not so much as to endanger his films’ commercial prospects. A certain standard of production value, a certain sensitivity about the things audiences and/or censorship authorities absolutely would not tolerate— Towers understood that those things were essential if he ever wished to become a truly major player on Europe’s cinema scene. It’s not clear to me exactly how, but everything I’ve read on the subject contends that Towers worked hard to keep Venus in Furs within the bounds of what he understood to be commercial viability. There’s no telling whether Franco would have made a better Venus in Furs without Towers to rein him in or a worse one. But the version we ended up with gains a lot from not being as junky and slapdash as Franco’s later productions for Artur Brauner or Eurocine, and if that was Towers’s doing, then I’m happy to have him aboard here.