‘Man, it was a Wild Scene’: Venus in Furs and the spectral object of desire

Posted by Glenn Ward on April 09, 2014 in Blog, Glenn Ward tagged with , , ,

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I would like to use my blogs  to look at the filmmaker Jesús Franco Manera, more commonly known as Jess Franco (1930 – 2013). The prolific Franco worked in several genres, but the films I will write about here are wayward combinations of (sometimes supernatural) horror and eroticism situated somewhere between low-budget exploitation and art cinema. Most of Franco’s better known works fall into the hybrid category of sex-and-horror cinema popular in Europe during the 1960s and ‘70s, with promising titles like Kiss Me Monster (1967), She Kills in Ecstasy (1970) and Virgin among the Living Dead (1973) leaving little doubt about the codes mixed or the bodily spectacle displayed.

I’ll refer to these films as gothic exploitation. Neither half of that label is precise; not all gothic films are exploitation, not all exploitation is gothic. But many of Franco’s cast of female vampires, mad scientists, debutants in peril, avenging angels, subhuman minions, aristocratic debauchees and doomed masochistic suitors occupy areas of overlap between these two fields. In Franco’s world, fetishistic and sadomasochistic props often adorn evocations of aberrant desire, deadly seduction and destructive obsession. Gothic exploitation is always ideologically ambivalent because its sensationalist fascination with its own definitions of perversity treads a problematic line between myths of ‘normality’ and fantasies of transgression. This ambivalence structures both the narrative and the spectacle of Franco’s films.

I may have just created the impression that Franco’s films are a carnival of torrid excess, but watching them can be a far more distracted and impoverished exercise than the enticing subject matter suggests. Frequently this is a matter of poor dubbing and dubious subtitling, but there is no denying that many are also monotonously paced, tenuously plotted and less than compellingly performed. Stylistically, they often lurch from florid pseudo-surrealist erotica to ham-fisted cinema brut. Many are bogged down by zoom lenses, clumsily inserted stock footage, arbitrary padding shots of landscape features and other irritants. Some are simply ugly, although this ugliness can have a certain appeal. Yet the most endearing and interesting of them – which is not to say that they have none of the weaknesses described above – either touch on a kind of baroque delirium or portray a world of morbid eroticism so grimy and lugubrious that it can’t fail to impress.

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One of the best examples is Venus in Furs (1969), which combines the lugubrious and the baroque in a dreamlike exploration of self-destructive desire. This tale of a man’s fascination for a chimeric, probably dead woman is part of a cinefantastic tradition which draws on the surrealist notion of mad love as a derangement of the senses. Peppered with consciously Freudian themes and motifs, it has more in common with Hitchcock’s necrophiliac fantasia, Vertigo (1958), than with Leopold Van Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870). Indeed, despite its interest in the sublime disintegration of the psyche in pursuit of an impossible object of desire, there are few links to Sacher-Masoch’s novel beyond the title, the ‘heroine’ in both texts being called Wanda, and her fur coat. In fact, Franco has stated that his original draft had been about a jazz musician’s obsession with a female muse whom he hallucinates (in an obvious Freudian innuendo) during trumpet solos; both the supernatural elements and the cavalier nods to Sacher-Masoch were dropped in at the behest of the film’s producer after shooting had begun. Untroubled by the fact that the nominal source novel had nothing paranormal about it the North American theatrical trailer declared Franco’s film “a masterpiece of supernatural sex”. The tagline on some Italian posters, Può una morta rivivere per amore? (‘Can a corpse live for love?’), neatly encapsulated the premise, while the alternate title Paroxysmus hinted at the attempted mood.

VIDEO_TS (title 0 ch 4 frame 15994) 1 (2)The narrative structures of exploitation films are often described as flimsy pretexts for displays of sex, nudity and violence, but in its efforts to represent derangement Venus in Furs stretches narrative to breaking point. The plot is so oblique and elliptical that I am not fully convinced by my own account of it. A jazz trumpeter, Jimmy Logan (James Darren), discovers washed ashore what he calls the “beautiful…dead”, naked body of a woman (Maria Rohm). Initially curious about the identity of the woman on the beach, Jimmy embarks on a search for information about her which quickly descends into a spiral of fascination, desire, distorted memories and guilt. A convoluted system of flashbacks reveals the woman to be Wanda Reed, who had been murdered during a kinky orgy witnessed by Jimmy at some indeterminate point in the past: Jimmy had watched Wanda being flogged to death by the upper-crust sadists Percival Kapp (Dennis Price), Olga (Margaret Lee) and Prince Ahmed Kortobawi (Klaus Kinski). As Jimmy delves into this formerly repressed memory, we learn that Wanda has returned from the grave, her vengeful ghost seducing her murderers only to kill them during intercourse.

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Spurning the love of a ‘good’, living woman in favour of a ‘bad’, apparently dead one, Jimmy relentlessly pursues this phantasmatic femme fatale. Although his attentions are initially thwarted, he and Wanda eventually form a sexual relationship. Wanda is emotionally distanced, but – desire and insanity being close bedfellows in the gothic exploitation universe – her detached inscrutability stokes Jimmy’s ardour while sucking him into a vortex of confusion and despair. As Jimmy says, “where was I going? Why was this happening to me? Why couldn’t I fight it?” Little suspecting that his inamorata is contemplating killing him too, he struggles to mentally reconstruct the traumatic circumstances of her past death and comprehend his own complicity in it; but his memory is contaminated by fantasy and secondary revision, and any attempts at therapeutic ‘working through’ are hindered by doubts over the ontological status of who or what he is making love to. His futile attempts to get the facts straight and put the story in order echo the structure of many gothic and fantastic fictions in which the hero’s maddeningly hopeless pursuit of truth leaves us unsure about whether the narrative describes mental breakdown or actual disturbances in the real world. Intoxicated by desire and addicted to anguish, he therefore embodies the desiring subject for whom the separation between self and the Other begin to falter, and whose sense of unity begins to dissolve. Consumed by conflicting feelings of lust, fear and curiosity, Jimmy loses his grip on reality as quickly as the viewer loses the plot.

As Jimmy tries and fails to establish whether Wanda is ‘real’ – and, if she is real, whether she is ghost, double or fake – the narrative almost abandons cause-effect logic and provides no omniscient viewpoint from we might assess the situation. Central to the sense of derangement is the extensive use of ‘first person’ narration. As in many of Franco’s films, long passages appear to have been filmed without sound (it makes for easier, and therefore cheaper, dubbing) and there are few shots of moving mouths; the first of the film’s rare dialogue scenes occurs a quarter of an hour into the running time. Instead, Jimmy’s bewitched, bothered and bewildered subjectivity is conveyed on the soundtrack through the almost continuous use of his overheated voiceover, delivered in a laughably dated sub-beatnik dialect.

VIDEO_TS (title 0 ch 6 frame 35794)Jimmy’s slide from investigator to erotomaniac is also visualised through long point-of-view shots filtered through once-fashionable distorting effects which attempt to merge the evocation of uncanniness with ‘trippy’ representations of doomed desire. For example, in two near-identical ‘stalking’ scenes Jimmy follows Wanda through a cloistered courtyard similar to the one in which Vertigo’s Scottie stalks Madeleine/Judy in POV. In the first version, Wanda utters her single line: “no Jimmy, go back”. At the end of the second version, she ushers him to bed. Accompanied by eerie music, both courtyard scenes make continual use of subjective viewpoint but present this – again as Hitchcock photographed the ghostly form of Madeleine/Judy – through a miasma of diffusion filters and ripples. This has the effect of visually obscuring the object of desire, who thereby becomes more mirage-like, elusive and masochistically desirable. Exceeding Hitchcock’s use of filters, the optical manipulations are overwrought to the point of kitschiness, but appropriate in a film where vision continually makes a show of itself.VIDEO_TS (title 0 ch 6 frame 35102)

The visual effects frame Wanda as an idealised figure along the lines of Tania Modleski’s description of Madeleine/Judy: “woman, who is posited as she whom man must know and possess in order to guarantee his truth and identity”. But since she is unknowable and unpossessable, Jimmy’s sense of truth and identity falls apart. As Wanda recedes from Jimmy’s diffracted view, he again questions the nature of his love-object and the nature of his investment in it, the implication being that desire is not ‘caused’ by the object itself, but by the deluded fantasies he projects on to it.

Carol Clover points out that the cinefantastic mode relies on an “an uncertainty of vision arising from a profusion of perspectives and a confusion of subjective and objective”.  A good example is Jimmy’s witnessing of Wanda’s fatal whipping, a scene as pivotal to the narrative as it is ambiguous; how we interpret the events has consequences for how we understand the entire film. In a clear echo of the Freudian fantasy of the primal scene, Jimmy voyeuristically watches Wanda’s flagellation from a safe distance under the cover of darkness, concealed behind a wrought-iron screen. Proceeding in virtual silence over three minutes, what Jimmy calls this “wild scene” contains over 50 cuts and is assembled in an accelerating montage that makes it difficult to establish the precise nature and sequence of events. Jimmy’s subjective point of view mingles confusingly with that of Ahmed, Kapp, Olga and Wanda, and with descriptive ‘third person’ shots which frame the scenario from a position beyond Jimmy’s field of vision. Franco and his editors provide sights to which Jimmy would not have been privy, including close-ups that would be impossible from his vantage-point. Thus the scene appears to grant us an ‘ideal’ position both inside and outside Jimmy’s consciousness.

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Our understanding of who ‘owns’ which look is complicated by the fact that the apparently takes place within Jimmy’s memory; we might think what we see is a somehow accurate representation of what he saw. But it may be more accurate to say that we only see what Jimmy remembers seeing – or what he imagines he remembers seeing. Certain ‘objective’ shots suggest that the events did happen, but since the image track is accompanied by Jimmy’s confused voiceover (speaking retrospectively from the present), we can’t be sure. Hence the sadomasochistic acts are onscreen before Jimmy’s arrival and continue after he leaves, but this can’t guarantee their diegetic ‘reality’. At one point Jimmy looks away in what he tells us is shame and disgust – crucially, he does not actually see the fatal blows – even though the film continues to show Wanda’s murder, in part through the now-absent Jimmy’s sightline.

If we deduce that the murder was real but Jimmy did not actually witness it, we may wonder how he ‘knows’ or why he believes that it took place. Perhaps  Jimmy witnessed the murder, but feels guilt over his own complicity. Ashamed of his voyeurism, the narrating Jimmy says “man, it was a wild scene. Like, if they wanted to go that rough, it was their bag. I told myself it was none of my business. But maybe I stood [there] because I was as sick as they were, but couldn’t face up to it”. So Jimmy, recognising that he has something in common with the others, fantasises that he turns away from the sight as a cover for (and symptom of) his guilt. Alternatively, Jimmy never witnessed the murder, but found out about it later, after discovering Wanda’s corpse. In both cases, we are shown Jimmy’s imaginative secondary elaboration as he embellishes the facts and fills the gaps in his ‘memory’.

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A third possibility is that the whole scenario is a figment of Jimmy’s febrile imagination, dreamed up during one of his trumpet solos. That Jimmy is insane would at least assure us that, beneath its delirious surface, the text still believes (or wants the viewer to believe) in the existence of a real world that adheres to the division between the actual and the imaginary.  In any case the confusion of viewpoints plays on the capacity of gothic and fantastic modes to manipulate and deconstruct the relationship between vision, knowledge and belief.

A measure of certainty seems to arrive – for the viewer if not for Jimmy – when, in what we imagine will be the denouement, he discovers Wanda’s grave and therefore learns that he has indeed been having an affair with a ghost. But, things rarely being what they seem to be, the narrative actually ends in the following scene, with a revised déjà vu: Jimmy finds his own corpse on the beach, leaving us to infer that he has been dead all along, perhaps that his discovery of Wanda’s beached corpse had been a hallucination (do ghosts hallucinate?) and that his ‘hip’ verbiage must have come from beyond the grave. Asking more questions than it answers, this conclusion confirms that although some viewers will dismiss Franco’s Venus in Furs as a silly sex fantasy whose mannerisms were probably out-moded even at the time of release, its commitment to the fantastic, mesmerising and oneiric is beyond question.

 

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