LA CASA DE LAS MUJERES PERDIDAS (1982)
Beyond the realm of reason….
“Nothing of him that doth fade. But doth suffer a sea-change. Into something rich and strange.” William Shakespeare, THE TEMPEST (1611)
One hundred percent Jess Franco and one of his absolute masterworks, LA CASA LAS MUJERES PERDIDAS is a raucous and melancholy chronicle of the destruction of a dysfunctional family living on a remote island. Although it has softcore erotic interludes it’s not really focused on sex as most of his Clasificada films are. It could almost be described as a Douglas Sirk style melodrama which is both amused and horrified by its characters who are pathetic enough for tragedy as they cling to negative behavior in this downward spiral. Essential viewing for a full understanding of the director’s filmography.
Over the course of 90 minutes the film doesn’t so much tell a linear story as detail the accumulated failures, fetishes, outrages acted out by exiled actor Mario (Antonio Mayans) and his extended family, Dulcinea (Carmen Carrion), his exotic looking, ill tempered lover, his sex-obsessed daughter Desdemona (Lina Romay), who spends considerable time masturbating with various objects in between trying to seduce her father and abusing her physically disabled, mentally disturbed sister, Paulova (Susan Kerr) , who is subject to frequent. screaming fits. Paulova is also abused by Dulcinea, who viciously whips her into submission. They are all broken people, trapped in a cycle of denial, role playing and brutal mind games. Nothing is real in this house of fantasy. The dysfunctional matrix is eventually shattered with the arrival of a poacher (Tony Skios), a hunter in search of the truth about the corrupted family.
Opening and closing with images of waves crashing onto the shores on the isolated island, the film is almost symmetrical in structure. The sea could be read as representing the unconscious mind, a glittering sea of personal fantasies in which these characters have drowned. Franco punctuates the inaction with longshots of fishing boats bobbing in the distance. Ships at sea are a familiar image in his filmography, one of his “secret codes” or ongoing conceits which appear more and more frequently in his 1970s and 1980s films, as if he were reaching out, with his telezoom lens, toward the heady freedom these crafts represent. They act as something more than a tourist’s snapshots of boats. Ships and boats seem to exercise a magnetic pull which draws his eye, which is represented by his camera, toward them and away from the land-bound characters and stories they are acting out.
Some of his most personal films, LA COMTESSE NOIRE, MACUMBA SEXUAL, GEMIDOS DE PLACER, LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO, are filled with images of ships, speedboats, yachts, all kinds of sea craft on which his inquisitive lens regularly zooms in.
A 1915 depiction of the tempest features a woman on a lonely beach looking toward a ship at sea….
One also thinks of the island and trapped characters in Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, with Mario as a delusional Prospero. And THE TEMPEST has frequently been alluded to as a tragicomedy, a masque and an example of commedia dell-arte, all of which might apply to LA CASA…. . And if THE TEMPEST can be interpreted as illustrating the death of the rational mind and the death of the author, then so can Franco’s film, which might also be seen as ushering in his 1980s attempts at serious dramas, with complex characters involved in tragic scenarios (cf BAHIA BLANCA). The names Desdemona, Dulcinea also reference Shakespeare and toward the end Mario says to his daughter, “Get thee to a nunnery, Ophelia!” quoting HAMLET, a play about a character who must act the part of a madman to expose the truth.
Mario is gradually exposed as a mentally ill fraud, a pathological lair as Duclinea calls him. He speaks of his past as a prominent actor in Argentina who was run out of the country on moral grounds, but all his talk may be just that. He seems to live a free-floating fantasy realm of his own creation, a made-up past words become a protective shell against the rude intrusions of outside reality. His memory is also failing and he often gets the details of cities, theaters, actors and countries mixed up.
“Let’s see how the world is doing,” Mario muses as he reads from a gossip magazine about the affairs of actors, celebrities and political figures. A pilgrimage to Fatima, a Vatican affair and the adventures of a Trappist monk are mentioned a la Bunuel. In fact Franco compared this film to Bunuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972). Qualifying that his film dealt with the petit bourgeoisie. Desdemona masturbates as she watches him read the absurd stories aloud (“Margaret Thatcher gets married in Washington.”) This is only the first scene in the film. Later, Desdemona smokes a cigarette by inserting it in her vagina and inhaling. Where have we seen that before? Only in a Jess Franco film, probably.
Strange, absurd-sounding radio commercials are heard over the various intra-family sexual encounters. Food and automotive products from Argentina. What is it with Jess Franco and Argentina? The South American country is regularly mentioned as a place where unique characters and intrigue abound in his films. Another in-joke/secret code? Incest constantly hovers in the fetid atmosphere as daughter lusts after daughter and father while stepmother violently seduces step-daughter as an advert for “Heston Turbo” automobiles plays in the background.
Finally, Mario has had enough after spying on the hunter making love to Dulcinea, who then leaves the island with the poacher as the failed actor prepares his final performance. He dresses as a “Captain from Flanders” looking at himself in another Jess Franco iconic mirror, summing up his flaw, “Because of a single defect, all other virtues, no matter how good, are worthless in the realm of reason.” He exits this realm by performing before an audience which exists only in his mind, spouting gibberish for the invisible theater patrons as he performs ritual suicide on the beach as his mental audience applauds.
Later Desdemona is left pushing Paulova in a wheelchair along the still lonely beach, realizing she will never leave the island and will be a prisoner of her self and her past for the rest of her life. The international jetliners which used to fly overhead reminding her of the freedom of the outside world are no longer there. The airport has closed. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Franco languidly zooms into the endlessly crashing waves as if to invite us to drown in the sadness of her situation. The composition SONATA INVERNAL, by Jess Franco and Rebecca White gives voice to the mood. It might have been appreciated if seen, felt and heard by the Douglas Sirk of WRITTEN ON THE WIND and IMITATION OF LIFE.
Most importantly LA CASA… presents life as a series of performances for various audiences, family, friends, enemies, impassive gods. The final performance ends in death, as life always does, with no guarantee of an afterlife, beyond what one has created. Perhaps Jess Franco’s obsessive use of the zoom lens is his way of attempting to break through the facades, the insistent ilusions of life which block the view of the realms beyond.
Jess Franco would remake this film in 1999 as BROKEN DOLLS, featuring Paul Lapidus in the role of the actor, which concludes with one of the most fantastic scenes of the director’s career. That film will be discussed in a future blog post.
(C) Robert Monell, 2016