Monday, January 26, 2015

Sexus (1965)

AKA L'enfer dans la peau (Hell in the Skin)

Ever the belligerent type, it was José Bénazéraf’s contentious attitude that led him to directing films. Bénazéraf started in the film industry in the late 50’s as a producer but began to feel that he could direct a film that was better than the ones he was producing. Despite the fact that the majority of Bénazéraf’s filmography consists of adult features having turned his attention to the hardcore market in the 70’s, Bénazéraf’s early features all feature several signature stamps setting them apart from all other films being made at the time and are near impossible to mistake for the work of any other filmmaker. These films run the gamut from the moody eroticism of his debut feature L'éternité pour nous (Eternity for Us, 1963), trangressive gangster films like Le concerto de la peur (The Concert of Fear, 1963) and 1966’s Joë Caligula (banned by the French censors, a decision which is often cited as playing one of the biggest hands in Bénazéraf eventually transitioning into adult films), espionage thrillers like L'enfer sur la plage (Hell on the Beach, 1966) and surreal unclassifiable oddities like Le désirable et le sublime (The Desirable and the Sublime, 1970). Combining the best elements of both L'éternité pour nous and Le concerto de la peur, 1965’s Sexus is not only one of Bénazéraf’s masterpieces, but its a film that epitomizes Bénazéraf’s radical early black and white period.  

Virginie, the daughter of a wealthy man is kidnapped in broad daylight by Carl and Pierre, two gangsters who plan on demanding a ransom from her father in exchange for her safe return. Not long after arriving at their chateau safe house the situation becomes tense with the arrival of a third gangster, the sadistic Francois and things become even more combustible after Carl attempts to rape Virginie, causing dissention within the group while the entire time Virginie finds herself becoming more and more attracted to Pierre.

Although Bénazéraf had already proven to have great handle on similar material as evidenced in the aforementioned L'éternité pour nous and Le concerto de la peur, Sexus (La Nuit Plus La Longue, The Longest Night) is for all intensive purposes where Bénazéraf really perfected his style. Sexus is perhaps the “purest”, for lack of a better term, of Bénazéraf’s early films as what he had explored in previous films really came to a head in Sexus. A classic example of accomplishing a lot with a little, Sexus is as minimal as a film can get yet it is also one of Bénazéraf’s most fully realized films which isn’t always the easiest thing to pull off with a film that feels as random and improvised as this does. The randomness however works very much in the films favor and only serves to heighten the tension that Bénazéraf establishes almost immediately. Sexus is perhaps the moodiest of all of Bénazéraf’s films with Bénazéraf preferring to let the actors faces set the mood rather than dialogue. What also makes Sexus a special film is its overt weirdness with characters behaving inexplicably, the twisted relationship that develops between Virginie and Pierre, an out of the blue S&M strip show and a political discussion that has nothing to do with anything. The films oddness is further pronounced by the insane free jazz score by the brilliant Chet Baker which despite contrasting greatly with the films otherwise brooding quietness couldn’t have been more appropriate for a film like this.

One of the most notable things regarding Sexus is that it was picked up for American distribution by cult film legend Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films who were responsible for renaming the film “Sexus”. Metzger, an admirer of Bénazéraf’s stated in a 1973 Film Comment interview “He really has a feel for making an erotic movie. There's a degenerate streak in his films, which he lives. You literally can smell the film. It's a gift. And he has impeccable taste in choosing his girls.” Nonetheless in the same interview Metzger admitted to cutting about 40 minutes of the film claiming “It was a style that might go today, but it seemed very slow then. We were trying to give our audience a little more commercial entertainment, so I compressed the thing, took out a lot of the pauses.” Another important thing about the film is it happens to currently be the only Bénazéraf film to have an official uncut DVD in release in North America courtesy of Video Dimensions. The DVD features two short films as extra’s, Paris Eyefuls (1958) and Strip (1965) both dealing appropriately enough with strippers. Though neither were directed by Bénazéraf they make for an interesting watches. Needless to say the DVD is a must have as Sexus is a pivotal film and required viewing for anyone interested in Bénazéraf and would make for a perfect starting place for newcomers.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Two Orphan Vampires (1997)

Jean Rollin may have made a name for himself with his highly personal take on vampires in the early to mid 70’s with films like The Rape of the Vampire (1968), The Nude Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1970), Requiem for a Vampire (1971) and Lips of Blood (1975) so its interesting that Rollin took an extended break from vampires after having been incensed over Lips of Blood having been meddled with and edited into an adult feature titled Suck Me Vampire. Following Lips of Blood, Rollin helmed a slew of unique films in various subgenres ranging from the slightly vampiric Fascination (1979), zombies in The Grapes of Death (1978) and The Living Dead Girl (1982), the cold, Cronenbergian Night of the Hunted (1980) and The Escapees (1981). Rollin was also a prolific writer and in the mid-1990’s began a series of five books revolving around the characters of Henriette and Louise, the two blind orphan vampires which would eventually lead to Rollin’s return to vampire films when he decided to adapt one of his own books to the screen resulting in Two Orphan Vampires the film. Despite the fact that the film was Rollin‘s first vampire film in 22 years, the film has been neglected somewhat since its release when compared to his earlier vampire films which is unfortunate as the film is one of Rollin’s purest and most poignant.

Henriette (Isabelle Teboul) and Louise (Alexandra Pic) are two blind orphans living in a church owned orphanage. What the nuns who oversee the orphanage are completely oblivious too is the fact that once night falls Henriette and Louise’s sight is restored and along with it comes a taste for blood. The two eventually leave the orphanage after being adopted by a doctor who hopes to one day cure their blindness. Once out of the orphanage, Henriette and Louise’s bloodthirst as well as their penchant for troublemaking grows and the duo’s nightly adventures become more violent and dangerous as they encounter various other creatures of the night.  

Two Orphan Vampires (Les deux orphelines vampires) is an interesting film in the sense that it essentially sees Rollin taking the style of his 70’s vampire films and transporting it into the 90’s, the main difference being the downscaling of the eroticism often found in his 70’s works. Setting that aside Two Orphan Vampires is still unquestionably a Rollin film. The pacing this time around is a little more languid even by Rollin standards and yet never once does the film become boring. In fact the leisurely pace couldn’t have been more suitable for the random nature of the film and the orphans surreal run-in’s with other fantastic creatures like a hunted she-wolf, a lonely, mournful ghoul and most memorably, the “midnight lady”, a powerful vampire-like creature sporting large bat wings, just one of many quintessentially Rollin visuals seen throughout the film and oftentimes with the screen saturated in blue as it being the color the orphans see in. The film is also one of Rollin’s most satisfying when it comes to his usual devise of having a film centered around two females with Henriette and Louise being two of the most fully realized of Rollin’s reoccurring “two girls” motif, thanks in no small part to the fantastic performances of Teboul and Pic. Its never revealed just what the relationship between Henriette and Louise is and it didn’t need to be, their sisterly devotion and beautifully poetic exchanges of dialogue is both convincing and touching ultimately making the film all the more powerful.

During this period Rollin wasn’t in the best of shape suffering from kidney disease which forced him to undergo dialysis treatments which prevented him from traveling to shoot the scenes taking place in New York City which were handled by assistant director Jean-Noël Delamarre. Another mishap taking place on the set involved Véronique Djaouti, the “midnight lady” who also doubled as the stills photographer for the film. While they may not look it on screen, the bat wings her character wore were so heavy that during filming for one of her scenes she cracked two vertebrae, although she soldiered on through the entire scene. On another somewhat negative front, composer Philippe D'Aram doesn’t look back on his soundtrack for the film too fondly referring to it as a “demo” rather than a finished film score due to the films miniscule budget which is a shame as the music is one of the films strongest attributes. Two Orphan Vampires might not be as highly regarded as Rollin’s 70’s vampire films but in the grand scheme of things it is undoubtedly one of Rollin’s most important films as not only did it mark his return to the subgenre where he found his style but in true Rollin fashion the film is a journey into the fantastique featuring two of his finest protagonists making it a film that lingers in the mind long after its over.