Nov 19, 2013

Venus in Furs (1969)

When I originally saw Venus in Furs (1969) aka Paroxismus aka Paroxsysmos aka Black Angel directed by Spanish sleaze-auteur Jesús Franco (Vampyros Lesbos, A Virgin Among the Living Dead) about a decade or so ago, my thoughts essentially echoed that of The New York Times when they stated of the work that it, “features much inept fancy moviemaking (including echoes of "La Dolce Vita" and even "Vertigo"), some semi-nudity, and virtually endless confusion,” but over the past year I have developed a certain guilt-ridden fondness for the proudly decadent dimestore director and felt it was my duty to reexamine the supernatural sex flick that many of his faithful fans describe as his unsung magnum opus of sorts. Indeed, after my recent re-watching of Venus in Furs, I came to the bittersweet conclusion that it is one of Franco’s finest masterpieces, if not his magnum opus of the macabre, as a sort of continuation of the oneiric and foreboding arthouse horror surrealism the director codified with his startlingly pretentious yet nonetheless pleasurable pseudo-Lovecraftian work Succubus (1968) aka Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden. A virtual non-adaption (Franco apparently changed the name of the film to cash in on the novel’s infamy) of the 1870 novella of the same name written by Austrian debauchee Leopold von Sacher Masoch (notably, the word “masochism” was derived from his name), Venus in Furs is an innately incoherent, fiercely foreboding, and freakishly phantasmagoric work of the idiosyncratic Gothic-Jazz-Psychedelic persuasion that demonstrates that somewhere in Jess Franco’s cheap-sex-absorbed Latin lunatic soul was a serious and even talented cinematic artist with a wild and wanton Weltanschauung of the largely incoherent and subconscious yet particularly penetrating sort. A work of aberrant arthouse exploitation featuring degenerate jazz, nauseating negrophilia (Franco originally intended to have a black protagonist who is in love with a white woman) and outmoded jet-set counter-culture debauchery set in a sunny and scenic beachside paradise, Venus in Furs is like Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961) meets Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), but with the surrealist kaleidoscopic colors of Juliet of the Spirits (1965), psychedelic paranoia of Performance (1970) directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, and the noir-ish jazzy paranoia of David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) and  narratively whimsical wild woman weariness of Mulholland Drive (2001). Like a fantasy vacation in hell hosted by Klaus Kinski and haunted by Maria Rohm, Venus in Furs makes for an argument that celluloid art can be totally pointless, idiotic, incoherent, and tasteless yet potent and aesthetically tasty. 

 After what seems to be a narcotic-fueled all-nighter, white jazz trumpeter Jimmy Logan (James Darren), for whatever ungodly reason, has buried his trumpet and its case in the sand on a beach in Istanbul, which is akin to spiritual suicide for a musician, but he cannot remember why. On the beach, Jimmy also pulls the naked dead body of a beauteous blonde named Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) from the surf that he fell in love at first sight with just the evening before. The night before, little Jimmy played his trumpet at a wild and crazy jet-set party at the mansion of a seemingly sinister millionaire Turk playboy (Klaus Kinski) where he witnessed said millionaire Turk playboy playing a violent game of blueblood rape and sadomasochism with Wanda, even cutting the girl’s neck and drinking blood from it like a vampire. While witnessing the S&M spectacle like a true degenerate voyeur brainwashed by counter-culture mumbo jumbo, Jimmy could only think to himself, “Man it was a wild scene, but if they wanted to go that route, it was their bag,” but little did he realize that the undead spirit of wanton Wanda will go on to haunt him (or maybe not), even after he makes his way for Rio de Janeiro for a change of scenery and becomes the fuck buddy of an ebony jazz singer. Despite the fact that Wanda is ostensibly dead and he has a black nightclub singer girlfriend named Rita (Barbara McNair), Jimmy becomes morbidly obsessed with the dead diva he found on the scenic beaches of Istanbul. Somehow, Wanda or someone that looks exactly like her washes up on the beaches of Rio and Jimmy becomes dead set on dedicating his spiritually-cuckolded soul to her. The minor problem is that Wanda has come back to seek revenge and kill the rich dandy-esque degenerate that tortured (and assumedly killed her) on that fateful night in Istanbul. Wearing not much more than a frisky fur coat, Wanda seduces and sacrifices her torturers, which include an obese and effete art dealer named Percival Kapp (Dennis Price), a fashion photographer named Olga (Margaret Lee), and millionaire playboy Ahmed Kortobawi (astonishingly, one is supposed to believe that Kinski is a Turk towelhead!), who allows the undead blonde beauty to treat him like a slave before killing him. After Wanda exacts her wrathful revenge killings, the Venus in Furs theme song, “Venus in furs will be smiling” plays as a declaration of ‘female power’-inspired climatic victory, as if auteur Jess Franco got off to the idea of a lethal lady wasting her unhinged un-lovers. As a result of the mysterious deaths, Jimmy is eventually contacted by a cop and comes to the conclusion that Wanda really is dead, especially after discovering her weirdly inscribed epitaph. Of course, the real shocker comes for Jimmy when he realizes that he is also dead after discovering his own body washed up on the shore, with Venus in Furs concluding in a manner stolen right from Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). 

A pseudo-esoteric artsploitation flick ridden with hip hedonistic excesses, degenerate jazz, and psychedelic insanity, Venus in Furs is an exceedingly eccentric expression of everything that was decidedly deplorable (minus the retarded politics) about the late-1960s, yet it still manages to be a devilishly delightful work as the jet-set backdrop makes for a strangely fitting atmosphere for this hopelessly hallucinatory horror flick. Apparently (or so said director Franco), inspired by the reckless life of white American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who was addicted to heroin and died in 1988 of a drug overdose (a heroin/cocaine cocktail), Venus in Furs portrays the beatnik bad boy life as a hellish haze of confusion and paranoia that no high—be it of the narcotic and/or sexual sort—can block out the misfortune and misery such a lurid lifestyles sows. Although an undeniable and unhinged aesthetic mess, Venus in Furs is as immaculate as Jess Franco’s films come as a work dripping with delightful dream-like delirium, lucid yet lunatic lyricism, and perverted poetry that ultimately does not have a single dull moment. Featuring a suavely dressed Kinski getting kinky, Rohm getting ravenous and revengeful, and Darren portraying a lovelorn dullard, Venus in Furs also includes shockingly memorable acting performances, even with all the lackluster acting and poor dubbing that positively plagues the film. A cinematic work that almost proves that Jess Franco might have become an Alain Robbe-Grillet (not that Franco probably does not have more fans than him nowadays!) or even David Lynch had things worked out better for him, Venus in Furs is also a self-reflexive (albeit largely subconsciously so) work of sorts directed by a man suffering from an artist’s crisis that would only be further compounded when his leading lady Soledad Miranda (Count Dracula, Vampyros Lesbos) died tragically and unexpectedly in a car wreck in 1970. Indeed, Venus in Furs is one of only a handful of examples why Franco is more than just a ‘European Ed Wood’ but more like a ‘Spanish Ulli Lommel’ who, although directing mostly worthless celluloid duds during his singularly uneven filmmaking career, directed an aesthetically malevolent masterpiece or two. Of course, my thoughts on Venus in Furs might be different today had the film been a cultural cuckold celebration of miscegenation with a black protagonist as Franco had originally intended it to be. Franco's exotic international Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Venus in Furs deserves its rightful and semi-dignified place as a rare and singular work that blurs the line between sleazy swinging 60s exploitation trash and aristocratic arthouse elegance.

-Ty E

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