Saturday, May 12, 2007

Here's to Jess Franco on His 77th

Jess Franco celebrates with a small group of friends in the 1980 film MACUMBA SEXUAL.

Today Jess Franco -- one of my favorite filmmakers, favorite personalities, and favorite people -- is celebrating his 77th birthday. I would like to mark the occasion with a glimpse into a little side project of mine that has been incubating for awhile. I've just completed an immense book about Mario Bava and I have no intention at present of writing another book of that size and scope; however, over the years, many correspondents have encouraged me to write a book about Franco, and this is something that part of me also yearns to do specifically for him. Jess Franco is one of the very few film directors who literally changed my way of seeing, and I would like to repay that debt with a book that, unlike OBSESSION, is wholly mine.
Sometime last year, I began compiling and ordering new thoughts about Franco's work as I set about transfering some of my old tapes to DVD-R. I decided to start with Jess's 1970s films, as I feel this was his most vital and progressive era, and see what developed. As it happens, some interesting things began to take shape. I'm not prepared to embark on a film-by-film study of Franco's entire career (which would probably take another 32 years to complete), but I believe that an in-depth study of his '70s work is doable and could be valuable in itself. Later, if I cared to, I could add to it with other books devoted to the other decades, but I don't want to think about that now. I'm not quite ready to commit even to this endeavor to the extent of calling it a project; at least for now, I prefer to think of it as a hobby.
I thought I would pay tribute to Jess today by excerpting from the text I have written about one of his most interesting and offbeat films of the 1970s. And so, without further ado... Cumpleaños Felices, Tio Jess!

France: LE JOURNAL INTIME D’UNE NYMPHOMANE (“The Intimate Diary of a Nymphomaniac,” 1972 - Videobox)
France: LES INASSOUVIES ’77 (1977)
USA: DIARY OF A NYMPHO (Howard Mahler Films, 1974)

This erotic cautionary tale was presumably inspired by the success of such films as Max Pecas’ Je Suis une Nymphomane/Forbidden Passions (1970) and Dan Wolman’s Maid in Sweden (1971): like them, it is a downbeat first person account of a young European woman who becomes involved in intensely sexual lives and lives to regret it. It has always been a staple of exploitation filmmaking to explore subjects like sex and drugs while wearing a mask of sanctimonious piety, granting their audience a margin of safety and separation. Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane shares some of these characteristics and thus is a most unusual feature for Franco, as its judgmental quality (reflected in the Scarlet Letter-like title of the English version) flies in the face of the amoral stance he generally takes as an individual and as a filmmaker.

Linda Vargas (Montserrat Prous) is a “live sex act” performer in a nightclub known as The Lucky Ghost. While feigning lovemaking with her co-worker Maria (Kali Hansa), she catches the eye of customer Ortiz (“Jean-Pierre Bourbon” aka Manuel Pereira) and joins him later at his table. After persuading him to buy and imbibe ten bottles of champagne, Linda walks Vargas around the corner to to a seedy hotel room she uses for assignations. By the time they undress, Vargas passes out – and after calling the police and informing them that a girl has been murdered in that room, she cuts her own throat and dies on Ortiz. He is charged with murder and his wife Rosa (Jacqueline Laurent, “Ruth” in the English version) is summoned to the station. Upset with her husband’s infidelity, she determines to help him establish his innocence by undertaking an investigation outside official province: an investigation into the victim’s life and relationships. An interview with Linda’s friend the Countess Ana de Monterey (Anne Libert) reveals that she was a small-town girl who came to Madrid only to lose her virginity to a rapist on an amusement park’s ferris wheel. While delivering laundry to the Countess, she observed her making love and was invited into her bed, eventually sharing her male lover, Paco (“Gene Harris” aka Francisco Acosta). Paco took Linda to the Lucky Ghost where she met Maria. Linda lost Paco when his wife caught them together in bed, and she took refuge in Maria’s apartment and open, nurturing sexuality. Through Maria, Linda became involved in nude modelling after meeting an aging “fat cow” junkie photographer named Mrs. Schwartz (Doris Thomas), and subsequently in drugs. That’s when the Countess lost track of her.

Rosa gets the rest of the story from Maria, a lesbian exhibitionist, who reads aloud to her from Linda’s own diary while shocking the woman’s sensibilities by stripping off and pleasuring herself. Rosa confesses that she’s equally attracted and repulsed by such openness, admitting that her husband has never seen her naked (“we turn off the lights wen we go to bed”) and that she herself has never looked at her own body. Maria seduces Rosa and teaches her to appreciate her body. Returning to the diary, Rosa learns that Linda was nearly rehabilitated from her nymphomaniacal ways by a doctor (Howard Vernon) who ran a private clinic. When she relapsed, he called her a whore and insisted on being paid for his services as a whore would pay, then told her to get out. She then returned to The Lucky Ghost, where Paco tried to get back into her good graces, but it was too late. She went to work at the club with Maria and then, one night, the man who raped her at the amusement park showed up in the audience – Ortiz. She decided to punish him for ruining her life by ruining his own by framing him for murder, her own suicide. The story told, Rosa and Maria fall asleep in each other’s arms. When they awake, Rosa asks for the diary, which Maria gives to her. She takes the evidence of her husband’s innocence of the murder charge with her, but – overcome by the sound of Linda’s voice demanding “He must pay! He must pay!” – she tosses the diary into a lake.

Made in tandem with Les Ebranlées and Franco’s first Manacoa production Un Silencio de Tumba, Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane is notable for the first lead performance by Montserrat Prous, a young actress who briefly occupied centerstage in his filmography between the death of Soledad Miranda and his discovery of Rosa Maria Almirall, whom he recristened Lina Romay. Montserrat Prous entered the world of filmmaking as an assistant makeup artist and met Franco through her relatives Isidoro, Alberto, and Juan, who had worked as production secretary and camera assistants, respectively, on Franco’s El Conde Drácula/Count Dracula (1969). She began acting onscreen that same year, in Amor y Medias (1969), directed by Antonio Ribas.

Any seasoned Franco viewer with knowledge of Lina Romay’s later place in his filmography will find his Montserrat Prous films fascinating, because she foreshadows Romay in many ways. She bears a striking physical resemblance to Romay, but has more elegantly sculpted features; Prous represents an almost intermediary stage between Miranda and Romay, and one suspects that Franco must have perceived in her the same continuation of Soledad Miranda that he later observed in Romay. In this film particularly, Franco uses Prous exactly as he would later use Romay: she appears wearing a pair of the thigh-high leather boots similar to those worn by Romay in several films, including Le Comtesse aux Seins Nus and Exorcismes; she participates in red-light “live sex act” stage performances as in Midnight Party; she has lesbian sex with Kali Hansa; she compliments her own dark hair with a longer, straighter brunette wig that makes her look more like Miranda and Romay; and, in scenes representing flashbacks to her virginal youth, she wears her hair in ponytails.

Compared to Romay (at least in her earliest films), Prous was the conventionally superior actress; on the other hand, Romay’s looks had aspects of darkness and derangement that Prous, a more wholesome beauty, could not summon on her best day. With the arrival of Romay, and as Franco’s personal relationship with her took shape, there was no question of which actress was going to become the enduring “Dark Lady” of Franco’s cinema. Prous made her last Franco film in 1973; thereafter, she and Romay stood on equal ground only in the work of another director, Carlos Aured’s El Fontanero, su muer, y otras cosas de meter… (“The Plumber, His Tools, and How Where He Puts Them…,” 1981), shortly after which Prous married and retired for many years from the screen. She has more recently returned under the name Montserrat Prous Segura.

Like Necronomicon and Vampyros Lesbos, and like Exorcismes and several other films still to come, Le Journal Intime… opens with a stage act, a sexual scene followed by the surprise revelation that the intimacy we have witnessed is part of a performance, met with the approval of audience applause. From there, the film proceeds as an hommage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, as the life of Linda Vargas (a nominal reference to Welles’ Touch of Evil) is reconstructed through interviews with those who knew this figure of mystery. Rosa Ortiz’s investigation, undertaken with the hope of helping her incarcerated husband, is a reprise of the archetypal undercover lover device dating back to Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orlof.

In France, a version of the film including hardcore sequences was released under the title Les Inassouvies ’77 (suggesting a sequel to his earlier film Philosophy in the Boudoir aka Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion, which was known as Les Inassouvies in France).

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