If you’re familiar with the work of Jesus Franco, the remarkably prolific Spaniard who, under a variety of pseudonyms1, has churned out some one hundred and ninety films in the last fifty years, bear with me. Perhaps, like me, whatever you’ve seen of his work up until this point has been terrible. That’s hardly a surprise. Franco himself would agree that the bulk of his work is sexed-up, dumbed down, disposable nonsense. There’s plenty of room for that in cinema. For marketing departments the world over, that’s the primary demographic. Nonetheless Franco has earned himself something of a reputation among cult cinema fans and it’s not entirely predicated on the fact that he’s willing to attach his name, or at least ‘a name,’ to almost anything. In witnessing Venus in Furs it becomes apparent that artistry can indeed permeate his work. Even if it may well just be a side effect of wringing out the same idea so many times that eventually the very act of avoiding ‘directorial repetitive strain injury’ yields an art all of its own.
Venus in Furs tells the story of jazz trumpeter, Jimmy Logan (James Darren), who finds himself obsessed with a woman, Wanda (Maria Rohm), whose corpse washes up on a beach in Istanbul. The body looks familiar but Jimmy cannot place their previous meeting in any coherent temporal context. He remembers individuals, among them the fashion photographer Olga (Margaret Lee) and the millionaire playboy Ahmed (Klaus Kinski), but a cohesive recollection of a larger event into which they all might figure eludes him. It would appear that Wanda was whipped and then murdered by these people as part of some sexual game. As Jimmy tries to escape his hampered memories by travelling to the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro, the murdered woman, or perhaps a doppelganger, re-appears. As the duo embark on a tempestuous love-affair, becoming a difficult triangle when singer, Rita (Barbara McNair), also expresses an interest in Logan, past, present, future, and all shades of unreality merge until our protagonist finally discovers the truth.
The film is an unbridled success on two levels. The first is aesthetic, and revels in the film’s own devil-may-care approach to its subject matter. Let us be clear,_ Venus in Furs_ has little interest in profundity. Although some of its elements are based loosely on the first part of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s unfinished literary epic, “Legacy of Cain”, the actual title Venus in Furs, a direct allusion to that novel, was actually imposed by the film’s producers. In some territories it still maintains Franco’s preferred title, Black Angel, which places more emphasis on the interracial relationship between Jimmy and Rita, which formed the basis of his original script and certainly suggests a progressiveness that was rare in cinema at this point in time. Beyond that literary allusion this isn’t a particularly convincing treatise on the topic of domination, subjugation, and sexual politics concerning men and women. It is however, a rather intriguing little puzzle box, even if the journey is inevitably more interesting than the almost suitably mundane conclusion. Secondly, moving away from the success of the film’s own narrative and focusing instead on the web it weaves and the various details entwined in that gossamer, Venus in Furs seems a remarkable linking point for all sorts of cinema: modern, classic, experimental, mainstream, high art, low art etc.
Sticking with the first reading for now, within its own constructs, Venus in Furs, unfolds an often wildly enjoyable mystery. Its erotic elements are kept suitably in check, gently bubbling under the surface rather than forming the focal point of every scene. This is perhaps the most pleasant surprise Franco offers. Much of his other work quite happily colludes with the pornographic2 but the subtle blend of exposed flesh and a freewheeling, suggestive visual style spell something quite different in this instance.
Arriving at the close of the 1960s, the film points forward to the pornography boom of the 1970s- the so called ‘porno-chic’ era exemplified by titles like Boys in the Sand (1971), Deepthroat (1972), Behind the Green Door (1972), and Emmanuelle (1974). These films blurred the line between pornography and art3, at least partly because this new mode of filmmaking inevitably opened up alternative avenues of expression. Venus in Furs is admittedly tame compared to those aforementioned films, if nothing else it doesn’t boast any actual sex, but its more racy moments would still be hard to imagine just a few years earlier, prior to the big breakthrough in the U.S. when the U.S. Supreme Court found the ban placed on Vilgot Sjöman’s I am Curious…Yellow a violation of the constitution.
Franco’s direction is frequently over-the-top but the effect, rather than being distracting or trying, proves a suitable cement for cobbling together continually bizarre spectacles. Aside from the film’s own lush sense of surface and colour, shot largely in soft focus, he employs hefty doses of slow-motion, film negatives, and lunging zoom effects. Additionally the script consists largely of questions and, when escaping those, opts instead for trite similes and amusingly dated slang4, trying ineffectually to capture the protagonist’s fleeting sanity. If that might sound annoying then it also can’t help but make sense, further feeding into the blatant artifice of the whole while referencing the ostentatious flow of film noir. All this is set to a jazzy score courtesy of Manfred Mann. Supporting this arsenal of skull-splittingly direct techniques is a more refined, if not exactly subtle, sense of art direction and set design that offer more delicate nuances. Every frame is brimming with playful details that seem poised to highlight the fragile barrier between reality and dreams. As we proceed it becomes increasingly evident that the world of dreams necessarily yields cinema itself as one of its elements.
The focus initially seems to rest on paintings, both classical and modern, which dot various scenes. Soon they begin to share their place on the wall with mirrors, reframing onscreen actions as reflections. During a surreal murder sequence, the mirrors that overlook the deed have their own painted decorations, transforming them into ever-changing works of art. These mirrors with their fragmented reflections, mixing with the cinematography’s soft focus and the film’s natural grain, suggest a highlighting of cinema language, a deconstruction. The reflections are part of the film’s story but also reflect the film’s own cinematic nature. This is further elaborated upon as paint and mirrors eventually give way to photography. Franco’s camera begins to dwell on Olga as she sets up a photography session of her own. The lighting rigs and equipment on display recreating in front of the film camera what undoubtedly lay behind it too.
Olga and Wanda, her chosen photographic subject, earlier indulged in a strange lesbian encounter- girl-on-girl in film-on-film. She fondles Wanda while Wanda’s attentions seem fixed on a nearby statue. At the height of their passion others arrive, effectively ‘on-set’, and start applying make-up. Even as mundane a detail as make-up can’t help but be roped into the film’s strange train of thought. The vicious bloody mark that adorns Wanda’s corpse, a lurid purple and sensually curved around her bust, seems unsure of its own function. It is, of course, artifice, but it seems unsure of its own reality even within the film. Does this make-up know that it’s make-up?
None of these playful touches are particularly original nor do they point towards a potent grander meaning, but they do link with the second method by which one might enjoy Franco’s creation. For cinema fans, Venus in Furs develops like an encyclopedia of the artform, boasting details and ideas from a vast array of other works, both those preceding it and following it: the jazz musician, struggling with obsessive sexual compulsions and a deranged memory, would later form the starting point for David Lynch’s strange journey along his Lost Highway; the female doppelgangers, death and life, hark back to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Feyder’s Le grand jeu ; the burgeoning jazz-style and almost overbearingly hip world of the characters suggests Antonioni’s Blow-Up; the oneiric, psycho-sexual flourishes evoke Belle du jour or Audition; the existential angst Teshigahara’s The Woman in the Dunes; and, in the film’s perpetual strangeness, journeying through an ever-changing landscape that may or may not exist somewhere on the precipice dividing life from death, Franco’s film could easily be pitched as a companion to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.
It’s this free-flowing sense of style and identity that really makes Venus in Furs a treat. It might perhaps be a cinematic succubus, borrowing allusions, weight, and form from other works through some manner of infernal coupling, but it also fully encapsulates the excitement of counter-cultural cinema as it was emerging in this latter part of the 1960s- an art-form that was more free than ever before to travel where it saw fit, fuelling and deriving fuel from a larger society that was acting on the same impulse. There are those that might decry the film as superficial or dispiritingly hewed by pornographic intent but such po-faced readings suggest a wish for an entirely different film, rather than an assessment of what Franco actually produced.
In that same vein, considering the last Franco film I saw ended with a group of sex slaves turning on and devouring alive their sadistic Nazi mistress5, what we have here is a most pleasant surprise. That being said, my affection for the film is not invested merely in the divide between my initial expectations and the product’s actual quality. Venus in Furs isn’t really about Franco and, for all I know, every other of the 189 (give or take) films he directed could be as awful as what I’d seen before. It doesn’t matter. For its duration, Venus in Furs reminded me of why I love cinema, and of all the potential it holds both for the casual and the more demanding viewer. It shows the reach and interconnection of the medium’s many artists. It is not guilty junk food for film-goers. Instead it’s an unusual treat, familiar yet singular, that reminds us that art and fun certainly aren’t mutually exclusive.
1 Often inspired by jazz musicians but also variations on his own name, which is actually Jesús Franco Manera. Examples includes: Jesus Franco, Jess Franco, Jess Franck, J. Frank Manero, Franco Manero, Frank Hollman, Clifford Brown, J.P. Johnson, Adolph M. Frank, Dave Tough, Jack Griffin etc.
2 In his varied career, Franco has found the time to direct a couple of hardcore pornographic titles too.
3 An already awkward, arguably entirely fictional, dichotomy. Although it took some time, the U.S. Supreme Court finally conceded that, “I know it when I see,” couldn’t qualify as a legally binding edict.
4 Everyone’s a ‘cat’ and some things just aren’t Jimmy’s ‘bag’.
5 If you must know, the film is Greta – Haus ohne Männer, which was later repackaged as Ilsa, the Wicked Warden, to fit in with that Nazi-ploitation franchise.