Monday, February 19, 2018

The Coast Guard (2002)

Despite being one of the most well known South Koran filmmakers to adventurous fans of cinema and winning multiple awards at various festivals throughout the years, even taking the top prize, the Golden Lion, in Venice in 2012, in his home country Kim Ki-duk remains a bit of a pariah. Kim’s peculiar way of exposing aspects of Korean society he takes issue, which Kim himself described in a sardonic e-mail to the South Korean press as “uncovering the genitals that everyone wants to hide”, hasn’t exactly done him any favors and at one point in time Kim even suggested that he wouldn’t even seek any distribution in South Korea anymore. In that same e-mail, Kim hilariously stated “I apologize for exaggerating hideous and dark aspects of Korean society and insulting excellent Korean filmmakers with my works that ape arthouse cinema but are, in fact, but self-tortured pieces of masturbations, or maybe they're just garbage. Now I realize I am seriously mentally-challenged and inadequate for life in Korea.” Given his tendency to gravitate towards dark and challenging material, its unsurprising that Kim would center a film on war and the military, first with Address Unknown (2001) and later with The Coast Guard in 2002, a potent film tackling an incredibly loaded subject, the tension on the border between North and South Korea, filtered through Kim’s typically lethal and ultimately morose approach to human psychology.

Stationed at the coastline separating North and South Korea, Private Kang, an enthusiastic young solider is obsessed with catching a spy from the north, which he and all other members of his unit are given strict orders to shoot should they observe one. One night while Kang is on watch, two young lover cross over into a restricted area for a romantic rendezvous and Kang, believing them to be spies, unloads his rifle, killing the boy. Although rewarded with a weeks leave and congratulated for following his duty, Kang is unable to come to terms with having murdered an innocent civilian and is eventually discharged while Mi-yeong, the girlfriend of the man shot by Kang, has lost all touch with reality and begins returning to the military base, sleeping with all the soldiers. Unable to adjust with life outside the military, Kang too comes unhinged and after being turned away from the base after multiple attempts to return becomes murderous.

Kim’s films are often open ended in nature and although The Coast Guard (Hae Anseon, 해안선) features plenty of Kim’s trademark abstract imagery and is highly symbolic, what makes The Coast Guard stand out amongst some of Kim’s other films is that not too much is left to the imagination in regards to its main ideas. Obviously the most noticeable thing regarding the film is Kim’s antagonistic approach to South Korea’s mandatory military service and jingoism. Although the film never crosses over into Starship Troopers (1997) territory in its portrayal of hyper-militarism, its potentially dangerous effects are ever present, making the central story of Kang and his mental collapse all the more interesting. Given that Kim presents Kang’s mindset before his murdering of a civilian in a rather negative light, it begs the question of whether or not Kang’s psychological ordeal is intended to be sympathetic or not. This is of course in sharp contrast to the films other central story, that of Mi-yeong, who’s descent into madness following her boyfriends murder is undeniably tragic, with her repeated visits to the military base giving way to one of the films most unforgettable moments. Kim’s surrealistic imagery makes its appearances when he’s focusing solely on Mi-yeong, scenes which, despite being melancholic due to her mental state, also have a strange innocence to them, as if her insanity has freed her, if only temporarily as opposed to Kang, who’s torment eventually brings him to the streets of Seoul for one of Kim’s most memorable finales.

On the North American DVD release, Kim discusses his intentions in making the film, stating “The film talks about the tragedies that have become part of our lives as we live in a divided country. All young men still have mandatory military service, and many of those men protect the coastal borders in order to strop North Korean spies from infiltrating the South. In reality, it has been confirmed that we haven’t had any spies since the year 2000. But we still continue to put these young men through hardship after hardship in order to protect our borders. I wanted to show, through this film, the cycle of pain that we often incur upon ourselves in this situation. The same kinds of things can occur not only in Korea but also in the United States, when you are always preparing to attack and trying to defend during wartime. I wanted to show that you can’t really be happy during such times.” In a way the film couldn’t have been more timely and from a purely socio-political angle, the film is still as relevant as it was in 2002 and never once does the film, or Kim for that matter, come across as self-righteous of preachy. Perhaps a bit more talkative than most of Kim’s other work, The Coast Guard is nevertheless quintessential Kim, provocative, even quite brutal at times but most importantly, heartfelt.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies (2012)

The passing of Jess Franco on April 2, 2013 left a significant void in the world of not simply cult cinema but cinema as a whole. While the digital revolution and availability of increasingly affordable equipment made it possible for virtually anybody to make a movie and allowed already established filmmakers more creative freedom, Franco operated throughout his entire career with a sense of individuality the likes of which are nearly impossible to replicate. Aside from a brief stint of inactivity in the 90's, Franco's exhaustively prolific way of working was a key contributor to his aforementioned individuality and when digital video came into play in Franco's later years during the late 90's, it allowed Franco to become prolific again. Armed with a digital camera and ambition, Franco helmed some of the most bizarre, divisive and most importantly, unfiltered films of his career, throwing every possible convention of traditional filmmaking out the window even moreso than he had in the past in favor of stream of consciousness visual and narrative experimentation. Not even the passing of his companion in life and film Lina Romay in February of 2012 could stop Franco. Released just months before his death, Franco's final feature Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies is the product of a determined artist filming through a mirror, drawing on the past while still pushing forward with a defiant and oftentimes mesmerizing final statement.

The film may be as far from conventionally plotted as possible with Franco going off on many a tangent throughout, though the film does have an incredibly vague core idea that Franco uses as a catalyst, centering the film around the titular Al Pereira (Antonio Mayans). A reoccurring Franco character, the once philandering private detective now walks the straight and narrow, however his newfound clean lifestyle is challenged by the “Alligator Ladies” (Irene Verdú, Carmen Montes, Paula Davis), the daughters of the diabolical Fu Manchu, who set out to lure Pereira back into his former hedonistic lifestyle.

A self-reflexive film within a film within a fever dream, Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies could been seen as Franco painting a cinematic self-portrait. Given that the film is so entrenched in Franco's personal mythology, things such as the use of Lina Romay's “Candy Coaster” alter-ego wig, the titular Alligator Ladies being the daughters of Fu Manchu or the repeated use of an acoustic instrumental version of “Madeira Love”, a song which was heard numerous times throughout The Other Side of the Mirror (1973), a good portion of the references are bound to completely fly over the head of anyone that's not a devoted Francophile, but the film offers plenty of rewards to anyone going into the film blind to Franco's world and can handle the films blatant disregard for convention and many moments of bewildering surrealism. In a lot of ways the film is also a documentary of sorts on the making of a Franco film, with several scenes featuring Franco and the cast rehearsing or discussing the scene which immediately follows, while the shots of Mayans writhing around in bed give the impression that none of the events are actually occurring in reality at all. While not as visually abstract as a lot of Franco's later films with only a few instances of post-production image distortion, which was common in several of Franco's video features, the film benefits greatly from being lensed in digital HD with eye popping lighting, making it the best looking of all Franco's later digital productions.

Incredibly, although hardly surprising, Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies was never intended by Franco to be his last film as a sequel was planned and additional footage was shot and eventually completed by leading man Antonio Mayans and released as Revenge of the Alligator Ladies (2013). Revenge also featured Irene Verdú, Carmen Montes and Paula Davis as the alligator ladies and they must be praised for their work in the first film. Montes was one of Franco's greatest discoveries during his digital era and par for the course is great in Alligator Ladies but its newcomer to the Franco fold Irene Verdú who stands out the most with an uninhibited attitude and incredible screen presence. Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies also had the distinction of playing theatrically for a few screenings which was the first for a Franco film in a good while with all his work from the late 90's onward going direct to video. The film even premiered at the Sitges Film Festival, Spain's premiere genre film festival which couldn't have been a more perfect place for the debut of the final film from Spain's premiere genre filmmaker. Divisive as both the film and its director are, Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies does truly mark the end of an era, closing out the career of possibly the most independent spirit to ever call “Action!”. Truly an important film.  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Flowers of Perversion (2005)

AKA Jess Franco’s Perversion

Although portions of his written legacy were destroyed in his day by government imposed censorship and simply lost to time or environmental factors, the Marquis de Sade nonetheless left a prolific bibliography of everything consisting from novels, short stories and plays to philosophical musings and political pamphlets, so it’s a curious thing that most film adaptations of de Sade’s work tend to be based off only his most well known works. Jess Franco turned to de Sade for inspiration more than any other filmmaker and its true that Franco’s go-to de Sade tale was Philosophy in the Bedroom, having adapted it numerous times and using the story as a template for several other films. Franco also adapted Justine in 1968 but he also explored other de Sade writings like Eugenie de Franval which became Eugenie de Sade (1970) and Franco’s de Sade obsession even carried over into his digital era with the abstract Helter Skelter (2000) which, despite not being based on one specific de Sade text was inspirited by spirit of de Sade’s writings, featuring several voice-over’s reciting de Sade quotes. Franco would again think outside the box when it came to de Sade in 2005, taking on de Sade’s Augustine de Villeblanche, ou le Stratagème de l’amour found in the collection Historiettes, Contes et Fabliaux with Flowers of Perversion, one of Franco’s most challenging yet rewarding films from his digital era.

Two prostitutes (Carmen Montes and Fata Morgana) arrive at the brothel of Madame Villeblanche (Lina Romay) looking for work. Villeblanche takes them on, although hers is no ordinary brothel as Villeblanche indoctrinates them into her philosophy of sadomasochistic pleasure which has no use for men. The two are instructed to learn to punish any fellow worker who dares love a man and to lure potential male victims to the brothels torture chambers where Villeblanche and her pupils gleefully put their philosophy into action.

Fitting in snugly with Franco’s other films from this period, if there’s one film that Flowers of Perversion (Flores de perversión) shares many familiarities with it would be Helter Skelter and not simply because of the de Sade connection. Obviously the biggest difference between the two would be Flowers of Perversion having a central idea that comes full circle whereas Helter Skelter was a plotless exercise in abstraction but both films are structured in a remarkably similar fashion. While Franco never looses sight of Villeblanche’s tutelage of the two girls, he prefers a random succession of scenarios ala Helter Skelter rather than coherent storytelling. The film drifts from one random situation to another, be it a lovemaking session between Romay and Rachel Sheppard hilariously interrupted by unending phone calls, Montes and Morgana torturing the male lover of a fellow employee and most unusually, numerous cutaways to Montes and Morgana gyrating in large afro wigs. The length of each scene varies and the longer situations will no doubt test the patience of many, but for those in tune with Franco, the longer a scene goes on, the more hypnotic it becomes. The film is also one of the most visually interesting from Franco’s digital period with moments when Franco will switch from color to black and white or if blood makes an appearance the only visible color will be red. Its an intriguing experiment as are the various image contortions, a constant from Franco’s video productions, that make select appearances during the torture scenes.    

Its important to note that despite being made during Franco’s tenure for One Shot Productions, Flowers of Perversion is not a One Shot film but rather a product of Manacoa Productions, Franco’s own production company. This might cause a bit of confusion in that the film was released on DVD by Germany’s X-Rated Kult as “Jess Franco’s Perversion”, not to be confused with the Sub Rosa released double feature of Franco’s Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula (1998) and Incubus (2002), two One Shot films, under the banner of “Jess Franco’s Perversion”. X-Rated also released Franco’s Flowers of Passion as “Jess Franco’s Passion” with similar looking artwork. Passion also starred Montes and Morgana who both worked very closely with Franco during this period with Morgana first appearing in Vampire Junction (2001) and staying on all the way up to Franco’s two Crypt of the Condemned (2012) films and Montes going on to becoming one of Franco’s greatest later day muses with exceptional turns in Snakewoman (2005), Paula-Paula (2010) and Franco’s final feature Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies (2013). Given the extra-polarizing nature of Franco’s later works, it should go without saying that Flowers of Perversion is only going to appeal to a select audience but said select audience just might find it be to a stand-out in Franco’s digital oeuvre and a quintessentially Franco treatment of one of de Sade’s more obscure stories.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sexy Sisters (1977)

AKA Die teuflischen Schwestern (The Devilish Sisters), Satanic Sisters, Aberraciones sexuales de una rubia caliente (Sexual Aberrations of a Hot Blonde), Deux soeurs vicieuses (Two Vicious Sisters), Frenesie erotiche di una ninfomane (Erotic Frenzy of a Nymphomaniac) and Swedish Nympho Slaves

Looking back at the long and labyrinthian career of Jess Franco, its interesting how portions of his career can be divided into specific era’s based on the producer Franco was collaborating with at the time, often with certain producers wearing other hats as well. Franco’s series of films with producer/writer Harry Alan Towers which include the likes of 99 Women (1969), Venus in Furs (1969) and Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) are often held in high regard by fans, with the Towers era affording Franco some of the larger budgets he ever worked with as well as some pretty big name performers. Franco’s work with Robert de Nesle also produced a plethora of important titles, particularly Countess Perverse (1973),  Plaisir à trois (1974) and Lorna the Exorcist (1974). Of course there’s also Franco’s highly divisive later days with producer Kevin Collins and One Shot Productions which resulted in avant digital video experiments like Vampire Blues (1999), Vampire Junction (2001) and Snakewoman (2005) amongst others. One especially fruitful partnership Franco formed was with Swiss jack of all trades Erwin C. Dietrich who put his money up for many a Franco title in the 70’s, one of which was Sexy Sisters, a film that at first might seem a tad anonymous but becomes much more interesting upon closer inspection when its connective threads to other Franco films begin to reveal themselves.

Chained to her bed under the watchful eye of her older sister Edie (Pamela Stanford) and Dr. Charles Barnes (Jack Taylor), Millie von Stein (Karine Gambier) is given the diagnosis of a delirious nymphomaniac prone to hallucinations and fits of sexual mania, occasionally quelled when Edie brings her a lover. After being told that her condition is getting worse, Millie begins to become suspicious of her sister and Dr. Barnes after one of her former lovers, Joe, makes a surprise appearance unbeknownst to Edie and Dr. Barnes, who’s mental mind games with Millie mask a sinister motive.

First and foremost, Sexy Sisters isn’t exactly going to the change the minds of detractors who find Franco nothing more than a sleaze merchant as the film most certainly revels in its perversity and for a while it might seem like the film was nothing more than a collection of sex scenes however once a plot begins to emerge, the film picks up quite a bit of steam while naturally retaining its prurient charms. The film is yet another example of Franco expanding upon an idea explored in previous films. Thematically, the film Sexy Sisters seems to take after the most is Nightmares Come at Night (1970) as it finds another mentally fragile woman at the mercy of two malevolent schemers with the blurring of fantasy and reality playing tricks on both the characters and the audience. While nowhere near as hallucinatory a film as Nightmares Come at Night, there are a few moments during Sexy Sisters where Franco does make things a bit ambiguous as it relates to Millie’s mental state and whether or not what she’s experiencing is real or a result of being drugged, with one moment late in the film involving Eric Falk being a classic moment of Franco delirium. The film is also somewhat reminiscent of Doriana Gray (1976) with Millie’s frantic bouts of nymphomania resembling Lina Roamy’s similar fits in Doriana Gray, however unlike that film and Nightmares Come at Night for that matter, the tone of Sexy Sisters is considerably lighter, even surprisingly comedic at times.

The relationship between Franco and Dietrich could perhaps be described as rocky as despite funding many films for Franco, when speaking of him in interviews, Dietrich doesn’t always present Franco in the best light, even claiming in the book Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco that Franco often owed producers money and suggested that he was always so eager to work as much as he did due to being constantly broke. Dietrich even suggested that at one time Franco was wanted by the French police! The look of Sexy Sisters is also worth noting as unlike a lot of films which Franco operated himself, like many of Franco’s Dietrich films, Sexy Sisters was operated by someone else. This has led to some fans over the years saying that the Dietrich films don’t really “feel” like Franco films because they lack the spontaneous, free-form nature of Franco’s camerawork (Doriana Gray, which Franco did operate being a glairing expectation) present in so many of his films. While its definitely noticeable, there are moments in the film which feature Franco’s signature all over them, particularly the night club performance during the opening credits. Although Sexy Sisters is often lost in the shuffle of some of the more well known Franco/Dietrich titles like Doriana Gray or Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977), its nevertheless a sordid little film that’s a worthy addition to any Franco collection.

Monday, December 25, 2017

White of the Eye (1987)

When discussing the career of Donald Cammell, its inevitable that the term “wasted talent” or “potential” are brought into the conversation. This is both understandable and a bit unfair as well. To a certain extent, its understandable as Cammell only managed to direct four feature films and one short during a cinematic career that spanned from 1968 until his suicide in 1996. On the other hand, despite the fact that his filmograpy only boasts four titles, those four are truly unique and individual films bearing the signature of a distinct personality. Cammell’s directorial career began on shaky ground following the editing issues faced by Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s co-directorial debut, the controversial Mick Jagger led head trip Performance (1970) and seven years would pass before Cammell would sit in the director’s chair again with Demon Seed (1977), one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the 70’s, and yet another decade would pass before another feature from Cammell would surface. The reasons behind Cammell’s erratic career are many, and its no secret how stubborn Cammell was, with a staunch no compromise policy which hindered many potential film projects, yet when left to his creative devices such an attitude became warranted. Case in point, 1987’s White of the Eye, Cammell’s penultimate feature and quite possibly his greatest achievement, a flawlessly cast 80’s horror masterpiece ripe with Native American mythology and giallo-esque murder set pieces.

In and around the small town community of Globe, Arizona, a series of brutal murders have been taking place with rich housewives being targeted by a maniac leaving elaborately staged crime scenes resembling ancient Apache rituals. After matching a set of tires found at one of the crime scenes, detective Charles Mendoza (Art Evans) becomes especially interested in Paul White (David Keith), a local family man and an installer of high-end audio equipment to a wealthy clientele. Joan (Cathy Moriarty), Paul’s loving wife of ten years doesn’t believe in the slightest that Paul has anything to do with the murders, however she has been suspicious of an infidelity and while dealing with one marital issue is confronted with a side of her husband she never thought imaginable.

Marketed as a serial killer film, very little of White of the Eye resembles any other film to fall under the serial killer umbrella. Although the murder investigation does play a major role in the film, White of the Eye is no police procedural, with Cammell using the concept of the serial killer as a springboard to bounce other ideas off of. The majority of the film centers around the relationship between Paul and Joan, cutting back and forth between the present as past (with the flashbacks bleached out in post giving them a highly contrasted look, an innovative technical move), establishing the evolution of their marriage with Joan’s former lover Mike also playing a huge role. Cammell makes exceptional use of the time spent with Paul and Joan, setting them up as the perfect couple, very much in love and great parents to a young daughter, however much like Hitchcock did with Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Lynch with Blue Velvet (1986), the shattering of the perfect façade has ten times the impact once subsequent events begin to unfold and the film takes a turn for the psychotic, although in truth the film was off-center from the start with Cammell’s quirkiness giving the film a very peculiar sense of humor which oddly doesn’t at all clash with its moments of brutality. The cast of side characters are equally eccentric and although brilliant throughout the entire film, its during the films final third where Keith puts on a clinic, becoming thoroughly unhinged.

The film was co-written by Cammell and his wife China who also has a small role in the film. According to actor Alan Rosenberg who plays Joan’s former boyfriend Mike, the Cammell’s employed very curious casting techniques. Rosenberg recalls while auditioning actresses to the play the part of a murder victim who succumbs to drowning, the Cammell’s would actually repeatedly dunk the actresses heads in and out a bathtub. Its not the only case of China’s curious casting methods. In their essential book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side, biographers Rebecca and Sam Umland write that during the casting of what would ultimately become Cammell’s final film, Wild Side (1995), in order to be sure whomever was cast would be comfortable playing a lesbian, China would proceed to French kiss all the potential players. It wasn’t a very popular process. White of the Eye is also important in that it’s the only one of Cammell’s features that was more or less released with Cammell’s original vision completely intact, with no producer interference or editing woes unlike Performance, Demon Seed and Wild Side. Although it essentially disappeared as soon as it was released, the film is thankfully readily available and if any film is worthy of a bigger following, its White of the Eye. An absolute must watch for anyone interested in Cammell and for horror fans looking for something very different.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Puffball (2007)

Depressing as it is, it should come as no surprise that certain visionary filmmakers have been forced to take extended absences in-between projects given various cultural changes which in turn lead to changes in the film industry. Nicolas Roeg is one such visionary filmmaker who’s experienced this side effect of his chosen profession first hand. While speaking to The Guardian in 2008, Roeg spoke openly about this challenge, singling out marketing departments in particular, stating “Hopefully to people that love film the climate is receptive to the work I do, but there is a sense of control from people within the industry that I have to constantly grapple with. Marketing is such a key issue; in fact the marketing department is often involved in the approval of scripts now. They really don't know how to market the films I make…” Following Two Deaths (1995), Roeg took a 12 year sabbatical from theatrical features although he managed to stay busy working on various projects for television including “Hotel Paradise”, a 1995 episode of the anthology series Erotic Tales, the experimental short film The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (2000) as well as two feature-length made-for-TV films, Full Body Massage (1995) and Samson and Delilah (1996). Finally, in 2007 Roeg made a long overdue return to both theaters and the horror genre with Puffball, an extraordinary work that, unsurprisingly, was misunderstood by many from the get-go.

Liffey (Kelly Reilly), a young architect arrives in a small north Ireland village along with her boyfriend Richard to renovate an old cottage. Not long after arriving, Liffey discovers, much to her shock, that she is pregnant. As it turns out, Liffey’s closest neighbor Mabs (Miranda Richardson) has been trying unsuccessfully to have another child. Upon hearing of Liffey’s pregnancy, the superstitious Mabs along with her sister Carol and witchcraft practicing mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) begin to believe that Liffey has stolen the baby Mabs has been trying so desperately to have, leading Molly to place a hex on Liffey and her unborn child.

Occasionally subtitled “The Devil’s Eyeball” on some releases, Puffball is an unusual, deeply unsettling film that, much like other Roeg films such as Don’t Look Now (1973), Eureka (1983) and Cold Heaven (1991) questions where mere superstition ends and the supernatural begins. Ripe with Pagan mysticism, witchcraft and several references to the Norse god Odin, otherworldly forces are plentiful throughout Puffball which Roeg plays around with masterfully, particularly as it relates to the psychological aspects of the film. Funnily enough, one of Roeg’s favorite subjects regarding the supernatural, telepathy and psychic ability, is mysteriously missing from this witches brew, however the bad magic utilized in the film certainly has a mental component to it. Roeg even manages to squeeze in some slight hints of reincarnation as well. Right from the opening credits Roeg establishes a mood of uneasiness which permeates the entire film thanks in no small part to the northern Irish locations. Naturally gorgeous, the area also possesses an undeniable mystic quality making it equally ominous as it is beautiful and Roeg wasting none of its potential. Roeg also sustains a sense of dread throughout through various technical techniques, namely sound design which at times is almost Lynchian with its disquieting drones, taking any seemingly “normal” scenario and making it oddly threatening. Some interesting editing and use of slow motion also make an already off-center and eerie feeling film downright terrifying in parts and the frightening presence of Rita Tushingham as the witchy Molly takes the film into nightmarish territory at times.

The film was based on the novel of the same name by Fay Weldon with a script penned by son Dan. Of course, it wasn’t an easy project to get off the ground. Even getting the script to Roeg proved to be a challenge. In the same Guardian piece mentioned above, Roeg recounted the slightly humorous story of never actually getting the script that was sent to him by Weldon, stating "I'd been sent the script by Dan Weldon (Fay's son) but for some reason or other I never actually received it. About six months went by and then Dan phoned to ask whether the project was something that interested me and of course I had to tell him that I never got it.” Roeg also stated the film  encountered a number of other road blocks along the way as well, funding issues especially, eventually becoming a three-way co-production between the UK, Ireland and Canada. To use Roeg’s description, the film was critically “mauled” upon release and frustratingly has yet to actually see a home video release in North America. Its true, Puffball epitomizes the term “acquired taste” and will not appeal to those content with being spoon-fed Hollywood horror reliant on nothing but cheap jump scares. For adventurous viewers however, Puffball is a singular type of horror that only Roeg and a select few other artists are capable of conjuring up.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Two Deaths (1995)

Its interesting looking at the careers of Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, the two bad boys of British cinema, as the similarities between the career trajectories of both are quite remarkable when put under a microscope. Both Roeg and Russell caused quite a stir amongst audiences, critics and distributors with films like Roeg’s co-directorial debut with Donald Cammell, Performance (1970), The Devils (1971), Lisztomania (1975) and Bad Timing (1980) just to name a few, films which, unsurprisingly, also ran afoul of many a censor board. Both filmmakers also showed a predilection for casting musicians with Mick Jagger co-headlining Performance, David Bowie taking the lead in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Art Garfunkel’s turn in Bad Timing and on Russell’s end the plethora of rock stars appearing in Russell’s unforgettable treatment of The Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975) as well as Roger Daltery retuning for the starring role in Lisztomania. What’s also notable about Roeg and Russell is that both began to turn to TV in the 90’s with Russell almost exclusively working in TV following Whore (1991), helming a slew of made-for-TV movies amongst several shorts. While Roeg also found steady work in TV in the 90’s, he also managed to still sneak in a theatrical feature like 1995’s Two Deaths, one of his most neglected films and one that would begin a 12 year absence from theatrical features from Roeg.

Three friends arrive at the home of Dr. Daniel Pavenic for an annual reunion dinner party, although the festivities this time around are different on account of a violent political uprising taking place outside. Upon arriving, the three men are immediately taken by a photo of a beautiful young woman and begin speculating upon her identity. Daniel readily admits that the photo is of Anna, his housekeeper, which further piques his friends interest. Daniel proceeds to tell his friends the story of how his all-consuming obsession with Anna led the two to make an agreement which made Anna his sex slave, much to the astonishment of his company. With revolution stirring in the streets, Daniel’s blunt honestly and shamelessness leads to his guests making some cathartic admissions of their own.

One of Roeg’s most twisted films in terms of ideas, its inevitable that Two Deaths be compared in some ways to Bad Timing given both films themes of sexual obsession masquerading as “love” (albeit far more one sided then the toxic co-dependency explored in Bad Timing), not to mention the prominent use of flashbacks to flesh out the development of Daniel and Anna’s current situation. Unlike Bad Timing however, save for the flashbacks, Two Deaths is confined to Daniel’s home for the majority of the film with Roeg’s camera leaving the house for brief intervals to check in with the political uprising happening outside the home. The sense of confinement was crucial in that Roeg essentially makes the audience feel as trapped in Daniel’s world as Anna has been. What’s especially interesting is that despite Roeg having Daniel lay everything out in the open regarding the nature of his and Anna’s relationship, Anna herself remains somewhat enigmatic, making her the most fascinating character in the film. What little dialogue she has brings an entirely new dynamic to Daniel’s tale and raises some questions about how truthful everything he’s saying is. The confessions made by Daniel and subsequently the others works in tandem with the political subplot, ie, the political revolution happening on the outside is reflected inside by the personal revolutions (and revelations) of Daniel and his guests. Its a fine line to walk which Roeg does masterfully, never once does the film become heavy-handed in its mirroring of the political and personal.

The film was based off the 1988 novel The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini by Stephen Dobyns. One major change between the book and the film is the setting with the book taking place in Latin America while the film was transported to Romania, with the political backdrop being the Romanian revolution of 1989 (one of several European revolutions to happen around the same time), more specifically the riots that broke out in the city of Timișoara in December of that year as a result of an eviction by the Romanian government of László Tőkés, a pastor of the reformed Hungarian church who had spoken out against an urban planning program to the media, although the seeds of political unrest had been planted in Romania years before the Timișoara riots. Eventually, the then communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was ousted and soon executed by firing squad along with his wife Elena after a roughly hour long trial, signifying an end to 42 years of Communist rule in Romania. Leave it to Roeg to use such events to craft a drama centering on sexual obsession and humiliation. Again, Two Deaths may be one of Roeg’s more low-key efforts, however it should be of interest to Roeg fans who’ve yet to see it and its combining of political history along with its central story of deviant obsession make it, like most of Roeg’s work, completely original.