Monday, April 21, 2014

The Sexual Story of O (1984)

Anne Desclos’ 1954 novel Story of O which was published under the pseudonym Pauline Réage is easily one of the most well known titles in all of transgressive fiction, right up there with Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs, Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s The Image and of course all the works of the Marquis de Sade. The novel was most famously adapted to the screen in 1975 by Just Jaeckin of Emmanuelle (1974) fame stating Corinne Cléry and Udo Kier but there have been several films that have been inspired by the novel, some more loose than others. Before Jaeckin’s film, underground legend Kenneth Anger helmed an unfinished short based on the novel, Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier directed a short film as an homage to the story in 1979 and the book even found itself the subject of a 1992 Brazilian mini-series amongst many, many others. Considering the sadomasochistic subject matter of Desclos’ original novel, it would seem to be the perfect type of thing for Jess Franco to film a version of. Not exactly. Despite having the words “Story of O” in the title, by Franco’s own admission, 1984’s The Sexual Story of O has much more in common with de Sade than Desclos’ source material, and much like Franco’s other de Sade inspired films, The Sexual Story of O is one of his most unforgettable as well as one of his very best films.

While vacationing in Spain, Odile (Alicia Príncipe), a young, voyeuristic American tourist catches the eye of exhibitionist couple Mara (Mari Carmen Nieto, billed here as Mamie Kaplan) and Mario (Mauro Rivera). Despite the language barrier, the three are acquainted and immediately become very close and share many an intimate moment. Mara and Mario invite Odlie to accompany them to the island home of their friends the von Baky’s (Carmen Carrión and Daniel Katz) for further enjoyment, however unbeknownst to Odlie, Mara and Mario have ulterior motives for inviting Odlie to the island and the Princess and Prince von Baky’s idea of fun is far more sinister than what Odlie is used to experiencing with Mara and Mario.

Unquestionably one of Franco’s darkest films, the influence of de Sade in The Sexual Story of O (Historia sexual de O) is ever apparent. The film shares many similarities with Franco’s interpretation’s of de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, namely Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969) and Plaisir à trois (1973) as well as the heavily Sadian influenced Countess Perverse (1973). The film is yet another example of Franco returning to previously explored themes and ideas and putting a fresh spin on the proceedings. Franco may have dealt with this type of material many times before this film and would explore it again in future films, but what sets The Sexual Story of O apart is its tone. Never before had Franco told this type of story in such a downbeat fashion. With the exception of Odile, everyone of these characters has a grim disposition about them giving the film an incredibly morose tone which Franco juxtaposes rather nicely with his constant showcasing of the beautiful island settings and numerous close-up’s on flowers which Franco also contrasts with the films gorgeous yet melancholy main theme which plays throughout the film. Cues from the Female Vampire (1973) soundtrack are also heard several times to great effect. The film is also notable for having a finale that has the potential to knock the wind out of anyone who’s become invested in the film, with the events leading up to it containing some of the most striking and nightmarish imagery Franco ever concocted.

Another thing to note about this film is aside from Carmen Carrión and Daniel Katz who Franco used in other films, this film features none of Franco’s regular cast members. According to Franco in the “Franco’s O” interview segment on Severin’s 2007 DVD release of the film it was an attempt by him to “avoid his own clichés” although he goes on to say he believes it really didn’t work as he didn’t do more films with this cast. With all do respect to Jess, the cast is flawless, Alicia Príncipe in particular was perfect for this film and the fact that the film packs such an emotional wallop is a testament to her screen presence. Although only a brief 15 minutes, that interview with Franco on the DVD is one of the more interesting interviews conducted with the man particularly when he opines on de Sade believing that de Sade is more often discussed than actually read and states one of the reasons he took a more Sadian approach with the film was because de Sade was a better writer than Desclos, and Odile was much more Justine that Desclos’ O. A wise decision as The Sexual Story of O is not simply one of Franco’s best films from the 80’s its again one of his best films in general, a quintessentially Franco and Sadian experience and one that’s not easily shaken.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How To Seduce a Virgin (1973)

AKA Plaisir à trois (Pleasure For Three)

Its no secret that a good portion of Jess Franco’s massive body of work could be considered “variations on a theme” with Franco returning to several themes and similar ideas numerous times throughout his career. One of the most amazing things about this was no matter how many times Franco re-visited a certain subject matter hardly any of the resulting films felt like rehashes of previous films, each film had its own identity. Beginning in 1968 with the underrated Justine, one constant source of inspiration for Franco was the Marquis de Sade. Franco found himself retuning to the writings of the infamous Marquis as source material many times with films such as Eugenie de Sade and even continuing into his digital era with Helter Skelter (2000) and Flowers of Perversion (2005). Out of all of de Sade’s texts however, Franco’s obvious favorite was Philosophy in the Bedroom. Franco first brought the story to the screen brilliantly with the masterpiece Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969) and adapted it several more times, each time putting his own unique spin on the story. Shot back to back with Countess Perverse (1973), How To Seduce a Virgin is one of Franco’s best treatments of the de Sade story along with being one of the best films to come out of one of Franco’s most prolific periods working for French producer Robert de Nesle.

After being released from a sanitarium for castrating a lover, Countess Martine de Bressac (Alice Arno) returns to her estate and its immediately apparent that her time away did little to cure her deviancy as she immediately retreats to her “museum” as she refers to it, a basement dungeon where her previous victims reside, frozen in a lifeless mannequinesque state by the Countess. Her husband Charles (Robert Woods) proposes to the Countess a new game which she falls in love with instantly, to lure Cécile (Tania Busselier), the young virginal daughter of a diplomat whom Charles had befriended while Martine was away into their home with the sole purpose of corrupting her innocence and ultimately adding her to the Countess’ “collection” in her museum.

How To Seduce a Virgin or Plaisir à trois as its been known to most Francophiles over the years is another prime example of Franco being one of the few filmmakers who’ve approached the works of de Sade to actually “get” de Sade even when taking quite a few liberties with the original writings. Just as Franco did with the previously mentioned Eugenie, here he takes the basic set up of the original de Sade story and takes it into some pretty unique places that are both quintessentially Franco and de Sade at the same time and place this film at another level that other films of this sort. Perhaps the best example of this would be Martine’s “museum” with her collection of mannequin like victims (“mannequin” is the closest term to describe them as they really are unclassifiable) and Franco’s eye for unusual settings with the de Brassic’s home ranging from normal in spots to what appears to be a converted cave which Franco uses to enhance the already slightly “off” mood of the film. Again, this film was shot back to back with Countess Perverse and also features an identical cast with some clever role reversals. While Countess Perverse isn’t technically one of Franco’s de Sade adaptations, the Sadian influence couldn’t be more obvious and the two films make for a perfect double feature. Its also important to note that this was the first film to really feature Lina Romay in a prominent role as the de Bressac’s mute servant Adele.      

In October of 2013 Plaisir à trois joined The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965), Sinner: The Secret Diary of a Nymphomaniac (1973), Countess Perverse and Lorna the Exorcist (1974) in getting a brilliant DVD release courtesy of Mondo Macabro under the How To Seduce a Virgin title. The release features two excellent interviews, the first being with writer and certifiable Franco expert Stephen Thrower who goes into pretty good detail regarding how this film fits in with the others that came out of this this period of Franco’s career as well as the influence of de Sade and as Thrower puts it, the “musical chairs” type of casting featured in several of Franco’s films, especially during the period in which Plaisir was made. Thrower also discusses the censorship issues that the film and Franco constantly faced in the UK which is particularly interesting considering the somewhat low-key nature of the film. The second interview featuring screenwriter and Franco collaborator Alain Petit is another treat as Petit gives a nice, detailed rundown of Franco’s de Sade adaptations and briefly brings up Franco’s attempted adaptation of de Sade’s Juliette which was never finished on account of the death of Soledad Miranda. Naturally the film itself looks fantastic which should come as no surprise considering the past releases from Mondo Macabro, and not just the Franco titles. An absolutely must have release for a crucial Franco film.