Sunday 19 July 2009

Paroxismus (1969)

Director: Jesus Franco
Stars: James Darren, Barbara McNair and Maria Rohm

I was an avid reader of English horror magazine The Dark Side from its conception in the late eighties, and it introduced me to a lot of names which were as fascinating as they were elusive. We had to read about these people and their films because in the late eighties and early nineties the BBFC still ruled the show in England, requiring cuts to everything and even banning films outright, somehow always the films I wanted to watch most. So many articles I read spoke to what was being cut or to what was being banned. Companies like Redemption tried to release films only to be shot down by the censors. If it got through, it got through cut.

So like many potential viewers, all I could do was read about it, feel jealous about those zine editors who had connections to get hold of some of this material and try my best to find some of those connections myself. I have a lot of fond memories of trips to obscure fleamarkets to be fleeced by unscrupulous pirates who happened to have got hold of some movie that predated the need for certification by the BBFC or which had been copied and recopied so that it was hardly viewable.

Many of the people I read about were filmmakers rather than actors, most were European and chief among them all seemed to be a man by the name of Jess Franco, born Jesús Franco Manera and who made films under more pseudonyms than could comfortably be imagined. Purely through his prolificity, he seemed to have made something in every exploitation genre there was, often pioneering them. Whatever they were about they almost always included some elements of horror and erotica. Some leaned more to one than the other but these were the omnipresent themes. And now TCM Underground gifts me with one of his most famous films, Paroxismus, released in the States as Venus in Furs.

Our hero is Jimmy Logan, who we first meet digging up his trumpet from the beach on the Black Sea that he'd carefully buried it under, presumably in some quest to find himself. He's James Darren, thirteen years before T J Hooker but six after his last performance as Moondoggie in the Gidget movies. As we meet him he's a lost man trying to find himself. Without his horn, he's not whole. He likens it to a non-musician not having speech, which may explain just how lost he is. He also tells us that he really isn't sure what's real and what isn't. Our task as viewer is to join him in the quest to find out.

It begins with him seeing a woman in the sea as he plays. He chases over in slow motion to pull her out and finds that she's topless with a stab wound in her chest. As he says, she's beautiful even though she's dead, and as he looks somehow he knows her. And so we start leaping around in time because he's confused himself. We meet the rest of the cast of characters at a jetset party where he was playing in the house band. The beautiful dead woman is the mysterious Wanda Reed, played by Maria Rohm. There's Klaus Kinski as a millionaire playboy called Ahmed Kortobawi, Margaret Lee as Olga the fashion photographer and an aging and bloated Dennis Price as an art dealer named Percival Kapp.

And all these people take her from the party, into a bizarre rape scene where she's stripped, molested, whipped and sacrificed. Jimmy has become infatuated with her, so escapes to Rio de Janeiro where he gradually recovers with the aid of a black singer called Rita, played by real life singer Barbara McNair. She helps him back to his music, it's carnival time and life is good. And then in walks Wanda, who he had left dead on the shores of the Black Sea. Immediately he becomes infatuated with her again though he finds that she can't offer any answers to his questions.

And while Jimmy searches for answers and some anchor to focus him into a single place and time, Wanda finds the people from Istanbul, whereupon they promptly end up dead, by natural causes but also the victims of the Venus who visits them in furs. Like Jimmy, we're not sure what's real and what isn't. We don't know if Wanda is really alive or dead, or whether she has a twin or she's a figment of Jimmy's imagination. We don't know if he's sane or not, whether Rio or anything else in the film is a dream. We don't really know anything but we're as hooked as Jimmy in finding out.

This is a fascinating film to watch. It's confusing, to be sure, but it's a hallucinatory mix of editing and hypnotic music that simply can't be ignored. There's hardly a gap in the eclectic soundtrack, which focuses on jazz and world music, making this a collage of imagery with some sort of story behind it rather than a straight forward story being played out on screen. There's a huge amount of editing, making this the sort of film that makes you wonder about technical details like average frame length. Angelo Lotti's camera dances like a snakecharmer and when it stands still the editors take over.

I wondered how James Darren would do in a Jess Franco movie, but he does fine. He's utterly confused about the whole thing but that's precisely the point. Maria Rohm is a gorgeous avatar for the camera, believably hypnotic in the various styles she runs through. Barbara McNair does a fine job as Rita, though she seems a little out of place in a piece of exploitation cinema. Kinski is amazingly controlled, though apparently this temperamental icon who despised directors never had any problems with Franco. Margaret Lee is magnetic to watch and even Price still commands us to watch him.

He always had presence and power but he started the descent into cinematic obscurity early through alcoholism. By the time of his greatest performance in Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949, he was beginning that slide and in the twenty years between that film and this he aged double that, becoming something akin to a bloated cross between Alfred Hitchcock and the aliens in Bad Taste. He looks terrible here and some of the sadness in his eyes is probably because he knows we know it. There's a lot in those eyes.

Really though the actors are secondary here to the imagery, though they're perfect for their parts. This is a hypnotic exploitation joy, perhaps what I've expected from Franco all along but have failed until now to find. I've seen a few here and there, but the last was a triptych of early seventies Francos with Soledad Miranda that I've read so much praise about: Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, which left me dry, and The Devil Came from Akasava, which I was highly disappointed with. Miranda and Ewa Strömberg were highly watchable but as films they lacked plenty. This delivered what those didn't, to my eyes.

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