VENUS IN FURS (JESS FRANCO, 1969)
The first time I saw Venus in Furs was four years ago; Blue Underground's stunning DVD presentation had yet to be released, and with only six Franco films under belt, I was still a Franco novice. I had been working through the few films of his that I could find, and before Venus in Furs the only one that had stood out to be was Virgin Among the Living Dead-- but Venus in Furs was different. Venus in Furs was the first Franco film that I got truly excited about. After my first viewing on a crummy VHS dub I immediately rewound the ending credits and watched Barbara McNair's wailing voice called out: "Venus in furs will be smiiiiiling-- when that moment arrives..."
Watching the film (for the fourth time) now is a totally different experience. The film has changed-- well, perhaps the film hasn't change, but the way I watch Franco films have. In fact, my entire method of watching films has changed. If there's anything that writing about film has taught me, it's the importance of being an active film viewer. And often with a Franco flick, being an active film viewer requires you to look at the film in context- specifically the context of the Franco canon.
But I'll touch on that later, as I'm also a staunch supporter of the idea that a piece of art, if it can be labeled "objectively good," should be able to stand on it's own--and Venus in Furs certainly does. Franco has--throughout his many taped interviews that delightfully complement DVD releases of his films--shown him self to be a jazz fanatic; the music inspires everything he does. In the case of Venus in Furs this inspiration is obvious--the story follows trumpet player Jimmy Logan (James Darren- whose character [and most of the plot of the film itself] was based off of musician Chet Baker) as he falls in love with Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm), a woman who he saw killed over a year ago. Jimmy is also in love with Rita (Barbara McNair), a crooning in the nightclub he plays trumpet in. Uptempo and almost psychedelic, courtesy of Manfred Mann decorates the film; there is more music on display here than dialogue, something that works to Franco's advantage.
Opening on a sunlit beach (featuring a fence that shares more than a passing resemblance to the infamous fence that populates a majority of the films in director Jean Rollin's oeuvre), the viewer is immediately introduced to a theme that pops up again and again in the "Franco canon"-- the idea of the sea, of water, as the beginning and the end. This is a motif that pops up, as I've said, in many of Franco's films: at the end of Female Vampire, as Countess Irina drowns in her bathtub, Sexual Story of O where Mario carries the murdered Odile into the eternally looming sea, in Vampyros Lesbos with Countess Nadine drowned face up in her swimming pool, Antonio at the end of Gemidos de Placer, the list is unending! And it was at this point, upon my fourth viewing of Venus in Furs, that I realized why it worked so well.
I think it works so well--and holds the highest priority among casual Franco fans-- because of the fact that it is both a microcosm of the Franco universe and an excellent example of European Genre Cinema (Euro-Cult, Eurotrash, whatever term you prefer). And there's a reason for this- the productions that Jess Franco made with Harry Alan Towers were international coproductions; and because of this, there were a lot of cinematic elements that Franco lost control over. But, Harry Alan Towers wasn't incompetent, so the combination between the two was fairly strong, and while they may not be "pure Franco" films, they are certainly good films.*
"Time is like the ocean-- you can't hold on to it..." musing Jimmy as he tries to take reign over the events in his life- the total chaos that is causing him such emotional distress. And this distortion of time is hyper-present in the film, in an early scene, introducing the murder of Wanda at the hands of three perverts, a party is filled to the brim with people, but nobody within the frame moves except our pivotal characters, the extras decorating the lavish room frozen still, echoing scenes from Alain Resnais' brilliantly elliptical Last Year At Marienbad-- except in a completely different context. Scenes cut back and forth between the past and the present, even occasionally jumping into what we can only assume is the future. Nothing is making sense to Jimmy as he wanders through the carnival in Rio, and the narrative structure of the film serves to hide the truth (at least, whatever truth there is to be told in a work of fiction) from the audience. We never know more than Jimmy.
The exploration of time and memory, played out via an occasionally melodramatic love story, calls to mind a quote from Jacques Derrida in Ken McMullen's 1983 film Ghost Dance:
"Ghosts don’t just appear, they come back. In French we talk of them ‘returning.’Now that presupposes a memory of the past, that has never taken the form of the present. [The] theory of ghosts is based on a theory of mourning. In normal mourning, Freud says, one internalizes the dead, one takes the dead into oneself, and assimilates them. This internalization is an idealization, it accepts the dead. Whereas in mourning, which doesn’t develop naturally–-that is to say, in mourning, that goes wrong–-there is no true internalization. There is [...] ‘incorporation,’ the dead are taken into us but don’t become a part of us. They just occupy a particular place in our bodies. They can speak for themselves. They can haunt our body and ventriloquise our speech, so the ghost is enclosed in a crypt, which is our body. We become a sort of graveyard for ghosts. A ghost can be not only our unconscious, but more precisely, someone else’s unconscious. The other’s unconscious speaks in our place. It is not our unconscious, it is the unconscious of the other which plays tricks on us. It can be terrifying, but that’s when things start to happen."
And things do indeed happen for Jimmy as he's haunted by the memory of the dead Wanda- a memory so strong with love and lust that he manages to somehow manifest her, and she becomes the catalyst for the events in the film. There is, of course, a delightfully handled revenge subplot that plays out amidst the romantic haunting, but it's hardly relevant. What it does serve to do, however, is necessary to the success of the film. It is within this subplot that a strong portrayal of European Genre Cinema tropes comes to the surface, it is this subplot which balances out the "non -Franco" elements of the film, creating the dichotomy of the personal film (Franco's general method-- at least when he has full control) and the public film (the idea of the "exploitation" film). But it's not just a generic subplot to pad the runtime and sell to international markets, rather, this subplot remains an oneiric exploration of revenge, still fitting into the idea of memory, ghosts, and regret. Wanda comes back to kill those who killed her, and it is no surprise when she discovers that all three of her soon-to-be-victims are still in love with her memory.
To further elaborate on the idea of the film as a microcosm of the Franco universe, one need look no further than the casting. Primary roles in the film are played by Maria Rohm, Klaus Kinski, and Dennis Price, all actors who pop up again and again throughout the Franco filmography. Part of Franco's brilliant intertextuality involves not only the repeated use of his favorite actors (in the way that many directors; Fassbinder and Herzog for instance), but the repeated use of the same actors as the same (or similar) characters. This repeated use of the character/actor combination helps to point out that idea that to truly enjoy see on of Jess Franco's films, you need to see all of them. It is the intertextuality that highlights each and every film, poking and prodding them into a more coherent product.
But I digress-- as I mentioned before, this is one of the few films from Franco's filmography that doesn't hold a total reliance on context to be a great film. Aside from the literal content of the film, much of the greatness of the film comes from it's aesthetics; specifically it's visuals and it's soundtrack. As I've already mentioned, Franco uses Manfred Mann's music more than dialogue, his tight, trippy, psychedelic jazz stylings providing a route for the fractured narrative to follow-- this music is passion. And of course, what good would a European Genre Film be without striking visuals? It was 1969 and the peak of modern interiors are on display here, including a couple scenes shot inside Carlo Ponti's styled-up-to-the-minute house! Many of the party scenes wouldn't look particularly out of place in a Radley Metzger film, something rare for Franco seeing as his interiors are generally far more sparse.
There are a few bits of post-production that provide temporary "surrealistic" touches to the film in particularly pivotal moments of the film. In decided how potent these effects are, it's best to examine the film, once again, from both the personal and public points of view: If viewed strictly as a Franco film, these surrealistic events violate the fractured realism that seems to be driving the narrative (as Franco himself points out in an interview), however, viewing the film in the context of a "public" film (as an example of European Genre Cinema), it works fine, and is handled subtly even. The special effects are not heavy handed, serving only to highlight the intensity of the moments on display.
In conclusion, Venus in Furs remains a brilliant film, whether taken as a microcosmic view into the wild world of director Jess Franco or as a prime example of European Genre Cinema, exploding with creativity and style.