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.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cold Heaven (1991)

Along with his penchant for complex, often fragmented narratives and innovative montage editing techniques, one of the things that makes Nicolas Roeg such a fascinating filmmaker is his approach to the supernatural. Roeg’s interest in strange phenomena can be traced all the way back to Performance (1970), which saw Roeg and co-director Donald Cammell present a sort of symbolic form of reincarnation or “rebirth” via the fusing of the characters played by James Fox and Mick Jagger. With Don’t Look Now (1973), Roeg established what was clearly his favorite area of the mystical and unexplained, that being the concept of psychic ability, second sight and warnings from beyond. Telepathy would also come into play in Eureka (1983) with hints of a psychic connection between Gene Hackman and Theresa Russell and said film is also ripe with various other supernatural components be it fortune telling, Hackman’s superstition of his soul being threatened and perhaps most unforgettably, voodoo. Then there’s of course The Witches (1990), Roeg’s memorable adaptation of the Roald Dahl book and Puffball (2007), where Roeg again turned to witchcraft and superstition along with Pagan mythology and references to the Norse god Odin. Following The Witches, Roeg continued on a supernatural path, albeit in a more adult fashion with Cold Heaven, yet another neglected later Roeg title and one of his most peculiar supernaturally themed films due to its religious (specifically catholic) preoccupations.

While vacationing in Mexico, Dr. Alex Davenport (Mark Harmon) is accidentally killed after being struck by a boat. Prior to the accident, his wife Marie (Theresa Russell) had planned on leaving Alex after admitting to him her affair with another doctor, Daniel Corvin (James Russo). A few days after Alex’s death, Marie is given the unexpected news that Alex’s body has inexplicably disappeared and she gets an even bigger shock days later when Alex appears to her in a motel room where she had planed to meet Daniel. Soon after Alex’s reappearance, Marie, a lapsed catholic, is compelled to tell a local priest of a vision she had years prior of whom she assumed to be the Virgin Mary, a vision which mirrors the nightly dream of a fanatically devout nun, all of which force Marie into an existential crisis of loyalty and fate.

Cold Heaven is the type of film that epitomizes the term “open to interpretation”. More specifically, it’s the kind of film that, while watching, its easy to take everything at face value, once its over however a plethora of questions arise about what Roeg intended to be taken at face value or what was intended as metaphor. This is especially true in regards to the films metaphysical content. The biggest question hovering over the entire film is whether or not the reappearing Alex is actually a ghost. Certainly that would be the obvious guess but Roeg offers up a bevy of other possibilities as well in that Alex could be stuck in some sort of purgatory state, or could even be a figment of Marie’s guilt-ridden imagination, although this is highly unlikely given later developments in the film but its an interesting suggestion. At one point Roeg even hints at a possible demonic possession. The films religious aspects are particularly curious as to how Marie’s supposed vision of the Virgin Mary are linked to the dreams of the nun which leads to the films most astounding visual moment which again, leads to further mystery rather than any concrete answers considering that what takes place could either be an act of nature or something of unknown origin. There’s also the issue of Marie’s lapsed faith, which Roeg utilizes in a manner not unlike Abel Ferrara, and the idea of “sanctuary”, a word which is used quite often in the film and given multiple meanings.

Cold Heaven was Theresa Russell’s fifth film with her then husband Roeg following Bad Timing (1980), Eureka, Insignificance (1985) and Track 29 (1988). It would be their last feature film together, their final project being “Hotel Paradise”, an episode of the anthology television series Erotic Tales. While being interviewed by a British TV station during a behind the scenes look at Cold Heaven, Russell described her working relationship with Roeg (rather appropriately) as “telepathic” stating “I guess because I know him so well I need less direction when I do a film with him because I know how his mind works, we have like a short hand or if I’m having trouble in a scene or something he’ll say two words to me and I’ll go “Oh yeah, yeah I get it, I get it” you know, I mean so its kind of almost a telepathic affair really in a way.” A brilliant and fearless actress, Russell’s performances for Roeg, particularly in Bad Timing and Track 29, display a boldness most actresses would shy away from and the same could be said for Russell’s performance Ken Russell’s (no relation) notorious Whore (1991) which she did prior to Cold Heaven. Cold Heaven was yet another heavy role in a very unique film. It’s a film that may confound many but its ability to remain just as interesting after viewing makes it a rewarding watch.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Track 29 (1988)

In a lot of ways, cinema is all about timing. Nicolas Roeg once contrasted his films with the films of Stephen Speilberg, claiming that Speilberg’s films seem to get released at the perfect time when audiences are clamoring for such materiel whereas Roeg’s films are the complete opposite. Roeg even joked that the title of Don’t Look Now (1973) was an invitation to critics to do just as the title asked, and the title of Bad Timing (1980) was itself a bad omen. While Roeg had a point with his theory, his early films were nonetheless released during a time when such innovative and at times daring films like Roeg’s received wide releases and were subject to plenty of coverage, both positive and negative. Following his instantly legendary co-directorial debut with Donald Cammell, Performance (1970), Roeg would go on to deliver five undisputable masterpieces with Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing and Eureka (1983), the later of which also seemed to be a victim of bad timing, barley getting a release and later shelved by its own studio. Save for perhaps The Witches (1990), Roeg’s post-Eureka career isn’t nearly as regarded as his 70’s/early 80’s output with certain films being virtually ignored, one of which is 1988’s Track 29, an utterly mental film that’s both psychologically fascinating and riotously entertaining due to its sheer insanity.

Linda Henry (Theresa Russell), a terminally bored housewife stuck in a dead-end marriage to an indifferent, unfaithful and train-obsessed husband, Dr. Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), spends her days lounging around the house, turning to the bottle for escape. Linda is soon thrown for a loop when a mysterious Englishman named Martin (Gary Oldman) enters her life, claiming to be her estranged son who was forcefully taken from her shortly after his birth. Having been tormented with grief ever since loosing her son, Linda accepts Martin as her son and attempts to make up for lost time, turning her already volatile situation all the more combustible.  

Track 29 can be a tough nut to crack in that it’s a film of two very opposite moods yet each somehow manages to work in tandem with the other so ultimately the two extremes make sense. On one hand, the film is a heavy psychological profile of a disturbed mind when focusing on Linda’s desperation with her home life and the need for nurturing as well as her constant despairing for a child. Roeg’s trademark flashbacks reveal the traumatic event that led to her child’s conception which make Linda all the more tragic a character, yet Roeg also leaves the exact reason why the child was taken away from Linda somewhat of a mystery which makes for some interesting questions. Roeg also makes a crucial storytelling decision midway through the film which could have been easily fumbled in lesser hands, however Roeg uses the occasion to make Linda’s situation all more fascinating and troubling as well with some none-too-subtle incestuous overtones. Now on the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the films outright zaniness, going off the rails (pun very much intended) with its warped sense of humor, Dr. Henry’s extramarital activities being particularly hysterical, and outrageous performances from all, particularly Oldman who’s demented man-child Martin throws many a histrionic temper-tantrum. Russell proves once again that nobody does “damaged” better than her and Lloyd, in perhaps the films most memorable moment delivers a speech about trains so impassioned its as if a seismic shift is happening within his own personal cosmos.

An interesting thing regarding the film is that it was produced by HandMade Films, the production company founded by ex-Beatle George Harrison who’s given an executive producer credit. Fascinatingly, HandMade also acted as a UK distributor for the slasher classic The Burning (1981) of all films! Given the Beatles connection its no wonder that John Lennon’s “Mother” is heard during the opening credits of the film. In the US the film only pulled $429,028 in ticket sales which might seem strange seeing as it featured someone like Lloyd who was already a household name but at that point was a massive star thanks to the success of Back to the Future (1985) but again, it would appear that timing was not on Roeg’s side given the preferences of mainstream movie going audiences at the time. The film got some curious reviews, most notability from Roger Ebert who, despite giving the film a fairly positive review, claimed the film was “unlikable” and “bad-tempered, kinky and misogynistic” like many of Roeg’s films (in Ebert’s words). Seems to be another case of “misogynistic” being thrown around far to freely as the film could hardly be described as such but it is however a totally unhinged and unforgettable film with go-for-broke performances and a balanced mix of seriousness and frivolity. One of Roeg’s most criminally underrated films and a film with “cult” appeal written all over it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Doctor Glas (1968)

Its almost a guarantee that the work of an artist who’s ahead of their time won’t receive the attention and respect its due until years after. This is especially true as it relates to the work of Swedish actress turned director Mai Zetterling. Zetterling’s homeland of Sweden was at the forefront of cinema that transgressed and pushed censorship limits in terms of on screen sexuality, but before Vilgot Sjöman caused an uproar with his I am Curious films, Yellow (1967) and Blue (1968), and before the release of the sensational sex education films Language of Love (1969) and Love Play: That's How We Do It (1972) and the Christina Lindberg vehicles Exposed (1971), Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973) and Wide Open (1974) just to name a few, Zetterling was already breaking taboos left and right, first with Loving Couples (1964) then with Night Games (1966), which sent many a moralist, most famously Shirley Temple, into a frenzy. It wasn’t until the 70’s when festivals dedicated to female directors began popping up did Zetterling’s films finally get their due, however it seems the recognition was short lived as Zetterling’s name still seems to be fairly low-key. Doctor Glas, Zetterling’s follow-up to Night Games and another unfortunately under the radar title, saw Zetterling take her fascination with sexually based neurosis to an even darker place resulting in one of Zetterling’s most challenging and perhaps greatest film.

Repulsed by her husband, Helga Gregorius, the wife of a reverend, makes a desperate plea to her physician Dr. Glas to lie about an illness to her husband in the hopes of it preventing him from taking advantage of, as Helga refers to it, his “marital rights”. Glas, who has long been harboring an obsession with Helga agrees, although the plan fails as Helga is back in his office soon after begging him to talk to her husband again. As Glas’ obsession with Helga intensifies, his grip on reality begins to slip as he becomes more desperate to aid Helga in the hopes of the two becoming lovers, eventually coming to the conclusion that the only way to help Helga is by murdering her husband.

Described by Zetterling as a story about “one man’s battle with himself”, Doctor Glas is a distressing and unusual psychological profile of a sexually frustrated sociopath. Although far from being a fast paced film, Zetterling nonetheless offers little to no breathing room in the sense that right from the opening credits Zetterling transports the audience into the fractured headspace of the titular character and stays there for the remainder of the film. Through voiceovers, Zetterling lets Glas’ disturbed thought process unfold and despite the character being completely unsympathetic, the film is always engrossing in the way Zetterling lets the evolution of Glas’ God complex unfold. The film is also one of Zetterling’s most visually accomplished and inventive with Zetterling crossing over into surreal territory several times via the use of deliberately out of focus imagery and morbid hallucinations representing just how rapid Glas’ grasp on the real world is slipping. Quite often these scenes employ quick cutting techniques and resemble the type of cut-aways Alain Robbe-Grillet would later utilize. Although short, the imagery in these scenes are rather unnerving and at times religious in nature which is another component of the film. Zetterling is none too subtle in her attacks on religious and moral hypocrisy. The most obvious example would be the character of the reverend but more interesting is Glas’ own hypocrisy in his deciding that he must kill the reverend while simultaneously refusing to perform abortions on several of his patients with his reasoning being his profession’s dedication to preserving life.

The film was based on a 1905 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg. In her autobiography All Those Tomorrows, Zetterling writes about immediately being attracted to the material with one passage from the book winning her over, “Why does one hate another human being? People who hate each other usually believe there are such big differences between them. But this isn’t so at all. Rather the opposite - they are so very much alike, always wanting the same thing. A bull hates another bull. He never hates a cockerel.” The film was scheduled to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival however the festival was cancelled as a result of the student riots taking place so how the film would have been received remains a mystery. The film did make it to theaters in the States although it seemed to disappear almost as a fast as it was released. Doctor Glas was also released the same year as Zetterling’s take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, The Girls (1968). While The Girls has gone on to become one of Zetterling’s most celebrated titles amongst those who know her films, Doctor Glas remains one of Zetterling’s more elusive films, even with some kind words written about it from longtime Zetterling admirer John Waters. Doctor Glas is an essential film for those interested in Zetterling’s work and especially for those who prefer to traverse the darker realms of human psychosexuality.