EL FRANCONOMICON / I'M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND

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MARQUISE DE SADE (Jess Franco,1976)

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DAS BILDNIS DER DORIANA GRAY/DIRTY DRACULA/EJACULATIONS; Switzerland/W. Germany-1976

The immeasurably wealthy and solitary Doriana Gray (Lina Romay) is a predatory sexual vampire who inhabits a castle perched above a jungle located in either a fairy tale or her own unconscious mind. Wandering through the densely overgrown tropical gardens, dressed in a long pink gown, she is a remote queen of nothingness. Her publishing empire promotes the kind of women’s fantasy literature which is read by bored, idle society ladies who live to dream of doing something of value. Doriana and her mute servant (Ramon Ardid) are actually partners in deadly plots which unfold like erotic serials in and around the vicinity of the castle. Young, and some not-so-young, women visit/are lured, seduced and finally succumb to the energy sucking female vampire. No blood is shed or transferred but something essential is stolen from the bodies of her victims. The characters and themes of Oscar Wilde’s story are somehow transposed into a Jess Franco vampire riff.

The attacks are sexual but Doriana experiences no pleasure during them. Instead, the sexual climaxes are somehow transferred to her secret sharer, Doriana’s mentally shattered sister, a Siamese twin separated a birth, who is locked away in the exclusive asylum of Dr. Orloff (Ronald Weiss).  The operation to separate the twins resulted in Doriana’s frigidity and the mental degeneration into nymphomania of her incarcerated double. One day an American journalist (Monica Swinn) arrives to do a story on Doriana. She will be the next victim in the vicious cycle. But Doriana’s end is near, rushed forward by desperate acts of destruction and self-destruction. The polarity of the sister’s sexuality, one driven to constant sexual activity which never results in pleasure, the other lost in hopeless sexual addiction which results in explosive orgasms which need to be followed by further ones, is the subject of the film. It’s not a love story like LE COMTESSE NOIRE, but rather an illustration of the private Hell of these women who are driven toward sex without love.

DORIANA GREY is one of the more subdued, artistically designed and mysterious of the films Jess Franco made for Zurich based producer Erwin C. Dietrich between 1975 and 1977. It’s also an example of the director’s methods. Take a film, LA COMTESSE NOIRE (1973) in this case, remake it as a piano improvisation in a more somber key, and then move on. Franco never stayed in one place, he always moved on to something else. He lived to make cinema and died in the midst of making his final film in 2013. Visually elegant, painted with a cold palette,  featuring a quiet, almost subliminal sound design, the film has a hypnotic quality. The compositions, Doriana and her victims drifting among the classical columns, a stunning shot in which Doriana is silhouetted in a window opening up onto a vista featuring a rainbow and a huge tropical leaf, are quite entrancing and resonate long after the film concludes. The final scene is an almost exact replay of the final scene of LA COMTESSE NOIRE, only done in a much more stark manner, without the director himself there as a character who witnesses the tragedy. Doriana drowns alone in a pool of crystal clear water.

There isn’t much dialogue, but the soundtrack brims with the cries of jungle birds and the sitar-like music of Walter Baumgartner. Franco was his own DP on this,  rather than the reliable Dietrich partner, Peter Baumgartner, and he often slowly zooms into the gargoyles and baroque architectural designs fitted onto the castle’s facades. The seemingly constant rainstorms outside the castle add to the melancholy ambiance, the raindrops suggesting the tears of Doriana. The interiors are often shot through omnipresent mirrors, giving the action added dimensions and creating portals into the kind of negative space in which Franco films often unfold. In terms of mood, visuals, themes, characters and poetic plotting, this film also anticipates and evokes Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991).

Lina Romay perfectly embodies both of these diametrically opposed characters and the film seems to exist so Jess Franco can observe her performances in personal tranquility. Shot in the South of France, producer Dietrich gave Franco carte blanche on this one, albeit with the stipulation that versions were created for both the hard and softcore markets. Ascot-Elite released both versions on Blu-ray as part of their Jess Franco Golden Goya Collection.

The recent FULL MOON DVD contains the more rarely seen soft version, taken from Dietrich’s HD master. Video Quality is good to very good, correctly reproducing Franco’s carefully calibrated color scheme. There is no visible print damage, The image quality is consistently sharp, luminous, detailed. Mastered from Dietrich’s own original negatives, preserved in his Zurich archives, it’s about as good as this film will ever look. The hardcore version is, of course, not presented on the FULL MOON DVD. Only the English language track is available. A release of the German language version, with English subtitles, would be most desirable. It plays much more atmospherically in German than with the existing English language track.

The hard version often breaks the special mood of the film with rather ugly gynecological close-ups. The soft core version would seem to be closer to a “Director’s Cut” and plays much more of a piece. The hardcore footage is replaced by surrealistic inserts, including a scene of a nude Lina Romay descending a spiral staircase while holding a giant sunflower stalk. This striking image is a kind of recreation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912-13 series of Cubist paintings, NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE. Not that Franco was trying to be artistic, but it comes off as  an artist’s rendering of a key emotion in uniquely visual terms.  And that’s what Jess Franco was all about. This may not be Jess Franco’s best film, but it’s one of his personal best of the Erwin C. Dietrich period. It’s pleasing that this superior version can be seen in an English friendly version. Unfortunately, the English language voice track is cast with more contemporary, sometimes jarring voice performances and awkward dialogues which somewhat detract from the film’s dreamlike quality.  But it is very much worth seeing.

Reviewed by Robert Monell

(C) Robert Monell, 2017

Written by Robert Monell

14 junio 2017 a 6:07 AM

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