Monday, January 26, 2015
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.