Monday, February 20, 2017

Joë Caligula (1966)

While the banning of any film is an unnecessary and fascistic act, the history of such instances will always remain an endless source of fascination and frustration for film fans. Obviously the most famous list of persecuted titles will always be the “Video Nasties”, which sparked one of the most ludicrous outbreaks of moral panic in recent memory. A more contemporary example would the be banning of Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (2013) in Kim’s home country of South Korea, forcing Kim to make several cuts in order to secure theatrical distribution. In Australia, a country notorious for draconian censorship practices, innumerable films have been refused classification, which is tantamount to banning, one such film being Larry Clark’s Ken Park (2002). In response to this, film critic and TV personality Margaret Pomeranz held a protest screening of the film which was subsequently shout down by the police. Then of course there was the banning of Takashi Miike’s Imprint (2006) by Showtime, a supposedly "uncensored" cable channel. One of the most egregious example of the banning of a film would be the decision by the French censor board to ban José Bénazéraf’s Joë Caligula the night before its intended premier and after it had already been given a rating. Bénazéraf took it personally and rightfully so as Joë Caligula is one of the purest examples of Bénazéraf’s cinematic anarchy and an crucial film in Bénazéraf’s oeuvre.

In an attempt to take over the ranks of organized crime in Paris, “Joe Caligula” (nicknamed as such do to his vanity, penchant for sadism and his incestuous feelings for his sister Brigitte), a young gangster and his crew of thugs wage war on the old guard of the Parisian underworld and get the attention of the established bosses after kidnapping and roughing up one of the big names demanding money. Joe and his crew continue their crusade although they soon go too far, setting fire to another high ranking gangster from a rival gang resulting in an eruption of violence, the consequences of which can only be tragic.

On paper Joë Caligula probably sounds like a fairly straightforward crime film about gang warfare, however with Bénazéraf at the helm the film becomes something else entirely, something wild and transgressive, borderline surreal at times. The film does follow a linear narrative, however Bénazéraf’s off-center sensibilities give way to an unpredictable and stream of consciousness type of storytelling with very few of the characters behaving like normal human beings and Bénazéraf peppering the film with random, matter of fact scenarios such as Joe and his crew posing in new outfits, a dance outbreak in a diner, Brigitte stopping in the middle of a walk to pose like a mannequin outside a storefront window and a classic Bénazéraf striptease performance set to the tune of “I'm Evil” that plays not once but twice. Also typical of  Bénazéraf’s films from this period is the distinct lack of dialogue and tense moodiness that results from the moments of silence with Bénazéraf focusing more on the brooding faces of the actors, the languid atmosphere of the film only being broken by the bursts of casual violence and manic free jazz score. What’s incredible is that despite the incidental nature of a good portion of the film, emotional investment comes rather easy, particularly later in the film when the score becomes mournful and Bénazéraf gives Brigitte, easily the most fascinating and enigmatic character in the film, his full attention, leading to a surprisingly heartfelt climax which in turn gives way to the haunting imagery that ends the film.

According to the French censor board, the official reason for the banning of the film was violence however Bénazéraf saw it as politically motivated. Bénazéraf had a habit of giving his characters radical political speeches and in his mind, the banning of Joë Caligula was an attempt to silence him. Bénazéraf stated in Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984, "It was revenge. Because of my opposition to all that administration and bureaucracy. So they fucked me and they fucked me well." Indeed, as not only did the banning of the film irritate Bénazéraf but it also cost him around two million of his own Francs and left him with 30 prints of the film and no way to distribute. Although it would be about a decade before Bénazéraf fully crossed over into the hardcore adult film market, its been suggested that the films banning planted the seeds for Bénazéraf's decision to leave mainstream cinema behind, having become so fed up with his films being censored. Interestingly, the film is available for streaming via Amazon Instant Video although the film has yet to receive an official English friendly DVD release, so for those who prefer psychical media DVD-R’s will have to do. No matter how the film is viewed what’s important is that Joë Caligula is an essential Bénazéraf title and a must watch for anyone with an interest in fringe cinema.

Monday, February 6, 2017

L'éternité pour nous (1963)

AKA Sin on the Beach and Le Cri de la Chair (The Cry of the Flesh)

One of the most fascinating things regarding the career of José Bénazéraf was his relationship with the French New Wave. It might seem a bit perplexing that the man responsible for direct to video hardcore titles like Lusty Widow (1985) and Olinka, Grand Priestess of Love (1985) would have been mentioned in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma along with the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and Chabrol, yet Bénazéraf began making films the same time as many of the aforementioned nouvelle vague directors and several of Bénazéraf’s early films feature the innovative stylistic tendencies that would go on to define the French New Wave. In fact, Bénazéraf even made a cameo in Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) as an unlucky man about to have his car stolen (his actual car was the one used in the film). Many of the techniques utilized by the New Wave filmmakers were considered radical at the time, a description that was invented for the likes of Bénazéraf and his early 60’s films certainty had an experimental bend to them with their long stretches of silence and free-form, stream of consciousness narratives. Following a stint as a producer, Bénazéraf made his directorial debut with L'éternité pour nous, a film which not only fits in comfortably with other “outsider” films of the time but also would play a major part in the development of European erotic cinema.

Pianist Jean-Marc (Michel Lemoine) and his singer/dancer girlfriend Brigitte (Sylvia Sorrente) arrive at an island resort to provide the entertainment for the summer. Almost immediately after arriving tensions soon arise due to the obvious attraction shared between Jean-Marc and Maria, the owner of the resort. The mood at the resort is also tense on account of Maria’s ailing husband and when Maria’s husband dies, accusations of murder begin to fly. Maria invites Jean-Marc and Brigitte to stay at the resort during the off-season so Jean-Marc can concentrate on composing, a decision that will dramatically impact the lives of all three.

Although it does predict the improvised style that Bénazéraf would employ in future films such as Sexus (1965) and Joë Caligula (1966), L'éternité pour nous (Eternity for Us) is a classic case of an artist finding themselves. Unlike the films that would follow, there is more of an emphasis on script here making the film more conventionally minded. More classical than jazz so to speak. Still, even with the story more at the forefront than in other Bénazéraf films, there are many instances of the quirks that Bénazéraf would stamp on subsequent works. Bénazéraf’s wandering eye quickly becomes apparent and there are countless moments in the film where the camera saunters off to focus on the resorts island surroundings or extended takes of the actors simply walking around said surroundings. Such moments are crucial to another Bénazéraf signature that the film features in abundance, that being mood. What’s unique about the mood of L'éternité pour nous is the prevailing sense of melancholy that would factor in select future Bénazéraf titles. These are bored and alienated characters and the constant showcasing of the empty beaches (save for the three main players) during the cold off-season at the resort further emphasize the void in their lives. There is also an air of pessimism to the film with Lemoine’s non-stop existential musings and Bénazéraf presenting a cynical view on the idea of relationships. Even the title “Eternity for Us” is left open to interpretation as to whether or not such a thing is good or bad.

Bénazéraf recalled the humorously simple way the film came about during the episode of the 1999 Channel 4 documentary series Erotika! entitled “A Life in Four Chapters”, claiming he was lounging on the beach reading a book and suddenly got a glimpse of Sylvia Sorrente rising out the water. Bénazéraf walked up to her, asked if she wanted to be an actress and fifteen days later the film commenced shooting. Even though Bénazéraf began directing films to prove he could make a better film than the ones he had produced, he was surprised by how far the film traveled outside of France, even to Japan and America where it was regrettably butchered and dubbed under the title of Sin on the Beach. The film also set in motion the collaborative relationship between Bénazéraf and Michel Lemoine who would also appear in Bénazéraf’s follow up to L'éternité pour nous, Le concerto de la peur (1963) and would also go on to co-write the script to Bénazéraf’s masterpiece Frustration (1971). Lemoine even credits working with Bénazéraf as the spark that gave him the drive to eventually make his own films. Despite being aggravatingly unavailable on DVD outside of France which is par for the course when it comes to Bénazéraf’s output, L'éternité pour nous is a crucial film that announced the arrival of a maverick filmmaker and really changed the landscape of erotically charged films.