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.

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