GEMIDOS DE PLACER (JESS FRANCO, 1982)
Gemidos de Placer is a film Franco made during his Golden Period, being a stage of his career in which he had returned to Spain to make films, and for the first time in his career was more or less free to make the exact films he wanted. This unfortunately often weakened his budget to an amount even less than he was accustomed to, but despite financial short comings it was a period of wildly personal, poetic films for Jess.
The film takes its inspiration from Philosophy in the Boudoir, a short work written by the Marquis de Sade whose themes Franco returned to time and time again throughout his long, still going career. The film takes place in a single night, from dusk to dawn, with only five characters taking part in the entire film. From what I can gather , Antonio (Antonio Mayans) brings his friend Julia (Franco's muse, Lina Romay) to his house for a night of debauched sex. Also Antonio's wife Martine has just returned to the house from a mental institution. Eventually Antonio reveals that he intends to drive Martine back to the institution, but throughout a night of sex (lots of sex), and the sexually fueled death of Marta, a sort of maid at the villa, things begin to change. Julia and Martine develop a close relationship, and at the end of the film they take their own actions against Antonio.
The plot is pure Franco, distinctively drawing a parallel between eroticism and death. Virtually nothing happens in the film except for extended sex scenes, yet the film rises above being pure, trite, erotica. To begin with, Franco takes a very Materialist/Structuralist approach to the actual structure of the film. The film is made up of only twenty segments, that is twenty takes without cuts, which if you divide the length of the film (~82 minutes) by twenty, you quickly realize that this means each shot is approximately four minutes in length. The camera lingers on the corporeal acts, using focus to draw attention to inanimate objects in the room, creating an intensely erotic rhythm to the film. The extended shots never get boring; by demonstrating a very careful understanding of composition and depth of field, the viewers eyes never stop moving, taking in the pure beauty of the scenes that Franco has created.
And this film is indeed one of Franco's most utterly beautiful. Even on the apparently shoe-string budget he was on, Franco uses every inch of the space his characters in habit-- the actors and actresses move in such a deliberate way it resembles choreography, moving around the frame which is always built upon the sexual act. Franco has his actors and actresses actually work with their surroundings, the villa itself becoming an all important sixth character in Franco's drama.
In fact, while I compared the technical intent to a simplified Materialist/Structural film earlier, Gemidos de Placer shares more in common with the more poetic strain of the avant-garde, even calling to mind such early canonical greats such as Maya Deren (refer to the seemingly choreographic movement of the characters, the inherent eroticism built out of material objects), but divorced of symbolism outside of anything but the erotic rhythm.
Working greatly with the rhythmic camera and characters themselves, brilliant guitar movement mingles with the action on screen, playing, as usual in a Franco film, an all important role in helping to develop the emotional impact of the film. And don't get me wrong, that is what remains most important here; even through my lack of understanding of the dialogue, the film conveys an extreme sense of emotion, which, I imagine, is why many Franco fanatics claim it as one of his best works.
In fact, what is easily the best scene of the movie comes shortly after the murder of Marta, as Julia desperately writhes and wriggles on a bed while the sun in rising in a window behind her (invoking a key image in Franco's oeuvre). The score of the film swells and the way that the rising sun hits her body as she goes through extreme sexual motions is hypnotic, and possibly the most beautiful thing that I've ever seen in a Franco film. The movement of the characters and camera, the lighting, the music, and the rhythm throughout all of this serves to create such an intense emotional tension that one cannot help but be utterly moved.
However, despite all this brilliance and emotional greatness, the unending sex-scenes do get somewhat tedious, as simulated sex scenes honestly take up more than 3/4s of the films runtime. It may be a totally personal response, as the film definitely never breaks the dreamlike atmosphere that it creates, but my lack of understanding of the dialogue made me occasionally lose interest. I wouldn't consider it a shortcoming of the film itself, as it is necessary in order to maintain the slow rhythm, but occasionally one wishes that something else would happen.
Despite it's flaws, Gemidos de Placer remains a major, key film in the Franco canon, expertly handling the themes of love, sex, and death that Franco has dealt with time and time again in his filmography It also demonstrates that the director who is very often referred to as a hack in terms of techniques actually is very adept at handling all the elements that make film as a medium the amazing thing that it is. If you can get past the fact that the film consists of virtually nothing but sex and focus on what Franco surrounds all of the sex with, I can guarantee a fully rewarding, affecting experience.
The version of the film I saw was in the original Spanish language without any subtitles, so I'm taking this plot from the viewing of the film and an auto-translation of the Italian Wikipedia Page.