Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Night Porter (1974)

Call me jaded if you must, but more often than not whenever I hear about how “shocking” or “controversial” a film is these days I usually take it with a grain of salt, as more often than not all the hype ends up being just that, hype and nothing more. I’m sure most would agree with me when I say that if the strength of your film relies solely on how “shocking” it is, chances are it’s severely lacking in other areas. Yet, there’s a reason why some of the most notorious films also happen to be some of the most memorable. Films such as Pasolini’s Salò (1975), Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) immediately spring to mind. All are unquestionably provocative, but also offer so much more than just lurid subject matter making their impressions all the more lasting,  and as a result all are still being discussed, debated and still provoking polarized reactions to this day. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 classic The Night Porter defiantly fits into this category. With a film like this, it’s not hard to understand why some would take issue with it. The Holocaust can be a pretty touchy subject, and adding sex to the mixture is taking it to another level of transgression, and I’ll wager a mere glancing of the synopsis would be enough to make any boring member of polite society run as far away from the film as possible. The fact that it was directed by a woman probably turned a fair share of heads as well. I first became aware of The Night Porter about 10 or 11 years ago. It wasn’t long after Criterion put the DVD out as I discovered it while browsing through their website. The first thing to immediately catch my attention was naturally, the enticing cover art. The more I read about the film, the more I became intrigued and got the DVD soon after. I’ll fully admit to not nearly “getting” the entire film after my first viewing,  but the more I watched it over the years and the older and wiser (fell free to roll your eyes) I got, the psychology of the film and the brilliance of the performances from it’s two leads became more and more apparent, and The Night Porter now stands as one of my favorite films, regardless of genre.

13 years after World War II, Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former SS officer, is now living a quiet life working as a night porter in a fancy hotel in Vienna, Austria. Max is soon set to stand trial in an attempt to clear his name of past actions. All of Max’s former Nazi comrades have gone through the process, and plan on helping Max achieve the same outcome by burning all documents and “filing away” as they put it, any potential witnesses. Max is thrown for a loop when one of the guests at the hotel happens to be Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), a concentration camp survivor who was involved in an ambiguous sadomasochistic relationship with Max during the war, with Max acting as her dominant tormentor yet also as a protector of sorts, and it isn’t long before the two sre back to their old habits. Max’s friends view Lucia as a serious liability, although Max vehemently refuses to give her up. Fearing the potential harm that could come to Lucia and himself, the two lock themselves away in Max’s apartment with limited resources, essentially shutting themselves off from the outside world, all the while being closely observed by Max’s former SS cohorts.

The Night Porter may feature Nazi sex and scenes of S&M involving chains, broken glass and even some good old fashion wound licking, but if you’re expecting something along the lines of an Ilsa film you’re liable to be disappointed. At it’s core, The Night Porter is a love story. Granted it’s probably the most demented love story ever brought to the screen, but a love story nonetheless. Admittedly, the film is a bit of a slow burn, but if you’re willing to fully invest in these characters the film becomes more fascinating as it goes along. Through flashbacks we witness the development of Max and Lucia’s relationship with Cavani only letting us in just a bit, always leaving the full evolution of the relationship a bit vague. Lucia remains a complete mystery throughout the entire film. It’s never really revealed how she came to be this masochistic, not only accepting, but craving this type of treatment from Max, which I always thought was wise on Cavani’s part, as I feel an explanation would have cheapened the film. She is that way because she is, and I think that’s a major aspect of the film that a lot of people found hard to take. One of the most interesting things about the film is how the argument could be made that the dominant/submissive roles have been reversed, at least mentally. For Max, it’s no longer about getting off on the power he holds over Lucia as it was during the war. He may still be the psychically dominant one, but he’s now legitimately, hopelessly in love with Lucia, as he admits to her and to others. The feeling is obviously reciprocated, as Lucia fully goes along, no questions asked with the extreme measures taken by Max in order to protect themselves from his friends, right down to being chained in his apartment. He even tells her she can be free of all the isolation whenever she pleases, yet she stays. Watching these two lock themselves away and starve is disturbingly touching in a way. Say what you will about how their relationship started or how “unhealthy” it may be, their committed to each other, no matter the cost.

There’s a few different ways to look at the whole former Nazi group of friends subplot. It’s true that it’s a bit far fetched (although you could say the exact same thing about the main plotline as well) but I’ve always seen it as a vehicle to look deeper into Max’s character and how he truly feels about his past. Pay close attention to Max’s demeanor  whenever his friends (who by the way are more than proud of their SS credentials) are present and when his upcoming trial and the war are discussed. Max may be the one to initiate a group sieg heil in one particular scene, but one gets the strongest impression that it’s all for show. Max claims to be content living like a “church mouse” as he puts, it, but when Lucia re-enters his life he becomes determined to stay that way, for his sake and hers. But even before he is reunited with Lucia it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable with the thought of going through the trial, yet is it because he’s nervous about the outcome or is he truly ashamed of his Nazi past (the obvious exception being Lucia) and wants to avoid it at all costs? It’s this ambiguity that makes The Night Porter so much more than meets the eye. It’s also what makes Bogarde’s performance so brilliant as the second you start to feel sympathy for this man you can never forget his actions of the past, no matter how he may feel about them in the present. It’s important to point out that there during the majority of the time Bogarde and Rampling are on screen together there is hardly and dialogue, and honestly there didn’t need to be any. The looks on their faces when they recreate their favorite “games” of the past says it all. What’s even more incredible is the way the two instantly switch moods with ease, going from desperation due to their self imposed isolation to passionate love making in the span of seconds. In all honesty Rampling could have never spoke a word and still would have knocked it out of the park. This lack of dialogue works wonders during the flashback sequences as Rampling really gets to show what she‘s made of, conveying what appears to be Lucia’s fear and confusion while all the while retaining her characters aura of mystery.  

Even if you’ve never seen The Night Porter chances are you’ve seen the now iconic poster art featuring that still of Rampling from the legendary flashback scene in the film wherein she dances seductively for Max and his fellow officers (and is rewarded with a severed head for her troubles). Hell even if you’ve never seen the poster you’ve probably seen an image inspired buy it in one way or another, it’s a look that’s been copied countless times by innumerable fetish models since the release of the film. More than just an excuse for a catchy looking poster, the scene in question sees Cavani flexing her artistic muscle, as it always appeared to me as a sort of surrealist paining come to life, what with the musicians playing, the strange masks a number of people in the scene are wearing and the overall hazy nature of it. It also carries over the dank, cold grayness the other flashbacks have. While we’re still on the subject of the flashbacks, there’s one that still sticks out for me as it remains a part of the film I could never comprehend. One of Max’s Nazi friends is a ballet dancer, and when he dances in private for Max the film cuts back to war time and he is seen doing a dance for his entire Nazi troupe. I really have no idea what purpose those scenes serve. If anybody reads this maybe they could shed some light. I know I’ve used this phrase on here before (like I’m so above repeating myself) but with a film like The Night Porter, there really doesn’t seem to be a grey area as far as I can tell. People either love it or despise it. As you can tell, I happen to belong to the former. It’s a lot of things to different people, tasteless, depraved, brave, ultimately incredibly sad, but one things for certain, this is filmmaking at it’s most audacious and regardless of your opinion on the film you have to applaud Liliana Cavani for taking on such, if you’ll allow me to say so, ballsy material that, along with pushing thematic boundaries, is filled with psychological complexity and striking, haunting imagery. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969)

*Not to be confused with the similarly titled Marquis de Sade adaptations Eugenie de Sade (1970) and  Eugenie (Historia de una perversión) (1980), also directed by Jess Franco.

1969 was quite the year for Jess Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers. Without question Towers defiantly seemed to “get” Franco and the type of films he made, even helming the scripts for most of the films (oftentimes under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck) and 1969 saw the two get on one hell of a role. Any Francophile will tell you that this period saw Franco direct some of his most memorable and highly regarded films, such as 99 Women, which many feel to be the quintessential women in prison flick, and the jazz influenced psychedelic mindfuck Venus In Furs, widely considered to be his finest hour. 1969 was also the year Franco brought the Marquis de Sade’s notorious novel Justine to the screen. As I said in my write up of that film, the material couldn’t have been more suitable for Franco, as he was an admitted reader of Sade since his teenage years. He would return to Sade for inspiration many times during his career, and while I feel that his other Sade adaptations are great films, for my money, he never approached the material of the infamous Marquis with more success than when he made Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, his highly unique take on Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom. It was actually part of the first batch of Franco films I ever watched, and I was hooked. It was inevitable that I’d write about the film at some point as I fell in love with it instantly and it’s tide alongside the brilliantly bonkers Lorna The Exorcist (1974) as my absolute favorite Franco film, and if I were ever to make my definitive “top 10 favorite films” list, it would defiantly have a secure spot on it.

Much to her excitement, young Eugenie (Marie Liljedahl), a typical bored, innocent teenager craving excitement is invited to spend the weekend at the private island estate of Madame Saint Ange (Maria Rohm) after Saint Ange “persuades” Eugenie’s father in her own unique way to allow the invitation. Upon arriving, Eugenie is introduced to Mirvel (Jack Taylor), Saint Ange’s stepbrother/lover, who is obsessed with Eugenie. Unbeknownst to Eugenie, Saint Ange and Mirvel are perverted libertines, belonging to a group of cult like sadists who take the work of the Marquis de Sade literally, gaining inspiration from his writings and using them as a guide to their practices. Under the direction of the menacing Dolmance (Christopher Lee), the leader of the group of Sade disciples, Eugenie was invited to the island as merely a plaything for Saint Ange and Mirvel, who plan on corrupting her innocence for their own amusement, introducing her to their world of sex, sadomasochism and murder.

Much like his previous Sade adaptation of Justine, Eugenie, for obvious content reasons couldn’t be a 100% faithful screen translation of Philosophy in the Bedroom, yet it stands as one of the most original and creative interpretations of Sade’s infamous book, by updating the story to contemporary times (well, “contemporary” for 1969) and actually having the characters acknowledge Sade, mentioning him several times throughout the film. “No modern home is complete without the works of the Marquis.” opines Mirvel to Eugenie. As evidenced in Justine, Eugenie also proves that even while taking some liberties with certain elements of the story, thematically Franco probably understood Sade better than any other director that brought his writing to the cinema (the obvious other being Pasolini). By having Saint Ange and Mirvel belonging to a group of Sade devotes was a brilliant move as it allows for the main characters and overall ideas of the book to remain in tact while Franco puts his own unique spin on things. In Sade’s original writing, Eugenie embrases the world of libertinage almost instantly after her “teachings”, yet in the film it’s a tad more ambiguous. Not long after arriving on the island Eugenie exclaims to Saint Ange she’s “ready to learn” as long as Saint Ange is the teacher, and she is rather quick to jump into acts of lesbianism with Saint Ange, so it’s implied that she’s had some “curious” thoughts for some time, and she at least had some idea as to what her purpose was in going to the island, while still being incredibly naïve when it comes to her “true” purpose. Dolmance praises Eugenie’s “aptitude to learn” during one of his ominous voiceovers, but again this “aptitude” isn’t so clear cut given the nature of the scene in which the voice over is heard. The Sade cult, along with Mirvel’s obsession with Eugenie were two great vehicles for Franco to take the story into directions you’d never expect a film like this to go, leading up to a climax that some have complained jumped the gun regarding Eugenie’s character, but I’ve always been of the mindset that given the context of the events, it’s completely plausible. Not to mention that fact that how the events unfold is pure Sade through and through.

For Eugenie, Franco assembled one of the best ensemble casts of his career. Marie Liljedahl fit the part of Eugenie to T. Along with being a natural stunner, she’s quite well rounded in the role, perfectly conveying Eugenie’s youthful innocence (I believe she was 19 when the film was shot) as well as her more hidden, tempted side that Saint Ange and Mirvel are dying to bring out in her. She’s at her best when she’s letting her character’s naiveties show, although I’ll always defend her evolution as Eugenie, as it’s something that a lot of people have singled out, calling it unconvincing, but like I said above about the climax, when you put it all in perspective and consider how the events unfolded, she handles the material just fine. Maria Rohm was always one of the most dependable actresses to have worked with Franco and I personally consider her performance as Madame Saint Ange in Eugenie to be her best, along with her portrayal of the deadly seductress Wanda in Venus In Furs. Rohm possesses an undeniable seductive quality and it’s not hard to understand why it was so easy for Saint Ange to convince Eugenie’s father to allow her invitation to the island, or coax Eugenie into making out with her. With this role, Rohm really gets to show off her range, by playing the friendly mentor role with Eugenie, and the perverted libertine driven by lust with Mirvel. Despite the nature of her character, you can’t help but be drawn to her, she‘s probably my favorite character in the film, along with Dolmance of course. Jack Taylor, another frequent Franco collaborator, has some of the most piercing, expressive eyes ever to be photographed. His frame may be slender, but he has a presence about him that is uniquely his own. There’s always a sort of awkward tension whenever he’s on screen, as we know just how he feels about Eugenie, and his stalker-eqsue glances and mannerisms couldn’t make those feelings, or his intentions anymore obvious. Legitimately creepy. Then of course, the man, Christopher Lee. His screen time may be brief, but his sheer presence more than makes up for it, as he radiates authority, looking absolutely threatening in that red smoking jacket. Lee also puts his great voice to use acting as the films narrator, and those sinister sounding voice overs of him reciting Sade leave quite the impression.

Original vinyl (left) and CD (right) versions of the soundtack
Eugenie looks, feels and sounds like a psychedelic dream. Right from the murderous ritual that opens the film, Franco hits us with pure style. The film is visually stunning, from the look of the estate and it’s island surroundings to the shots of the ocean and the exquisite use of color, all of Franco’s directorial strengths are on display here. Now there are a lot of out of focus shots in the film, some say that Franco went a bit overboard with them here, but they do serve an important purpose of giving off that classic Franco hallucinogenic, hazy dream state, and some are used quite ingeniously. Franco uses other techniques such as bathing entire scenes in red light, creating an otherworldly feeling of surreal eroticism that is entirely his own. The sequence of Dolmance and his gang of libertines entering the estate while Saint Ange, Mirvel and a drugged Eugenie go at each other, and what immediately follows is a shining example of Franco’s ability to come up with incredibly bizarre yet compelling visuals, as the libertines, with the exception of Lee, all dress in traditional 17th century clothing as a tribute to Sade (“In tribute we wear the costume of his time”, as Dolmance explains). It’s really an unforgettable sight, brilliantly staged, filmed and edited, being one of the aforementioned moments where the out of focus shots are put to great use. The feeling of the film would have been drastically different without Bruno Nicolai’s phenomenal score, one of the main selling points of the film, which I consider to be his best work, and the best score for any Franco film. Sometimes poppy, often trippy, always sexy. A good portion of the music has a very eastern flavor, as Nicolai makes heavy use of the sitar, which does wonders in putting off a vibe working hand in hand with Franco’s stunning images. The Franco/Nicolai team is one of the most unheralded cinematic director/composer collaborations, and the soundtrack is more than worth picking up if you’re able to find it for a reasonable price.

On the “Perversion Stores” short documentary chronicling the making of the film featured on Blue Underground’s great DVD of the film, Christopher Lee recounts the comical story of how he learned of the film’s erotic content. It’s well known at this point but still worth repeating. After Lee had completed his two days of work on the set, that’s when Franco filmed the more racier scenes. Lee had no knowledge of any of this until he got a call from a friend telling him they just saw his name on the marquee of an adult theatre where the film was playing. Harry Alan Towers agrees that Lee was duped a bit when he was asked to play the part of Dolmance. Lee goes on to joke that he really has appeared in every kind of film in one way or another, During the same interview he rightfully praises Franco, stating he’s underrated, and when given the right amount of time was capable of greatness. He couldn’t be more right. Lee stared in several other Franco films such as The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), The Bloody Judge (1970) and Count Dracula (1970), which (here’s another captain obvious moment for you) Lee has stated that his portrayal of the Count in that film was the closest to Bram Stoker’s original character. Though his performance in Eugenie may be short, of all the films he did with Franco it’s defiantly one of the most memorable. If you’ve never seen a Franco film and are curious about his work, Eugenie would be a perfect place to start as you’ll get a prime example of the type of aura that surrounds the very his best films. It stands as one of his best acted, looking and sounding films. A certifiable masterpiece.