Tuesday, April 19, 2011

VENUS IN FURS (Paroxismus, 1969)

Jazz musician Jimmy Logan seems to be recovering from a bad trip -- he digs his trumpet out of the sand and can't remember why he buried it -- when a body washes up on a beach to launch him on an even worse trip. Jimmy recognizes the body and can even guess why she's dead. He witnessed the gang-rape of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) by three decadent characters in Istanbul -- but apparently did nothing. It's not clear whether people know generally that Wanda is dead. At least no one but Jimmy bats an eye when she turns up, live as life, in Rio during the Carnival. One of her tormentors is also there, but he ends up dead. In fact, Wanda has somehow loved or at least stimulated him to death (hence the movie's alternate title). She'll repeat that trick elsewhere on the globe, somehow following Jimmy as he goes from gig to gig like her spotter, to take out a bisexual woman (Margaret Lee) and Ahmet (Klaus Kinski), who either has a turban fetish or is supposed to be a Turkish man. Wanda's mysterious movements pretty much kill Jimmy's interracial buzz with nightclub singer Rita (Barbara McNair), but obsessions are like that. And when all's said and done Jimmy's back on the beach playing a personal requiem for Wanda, only to see a body wash up on the beach. So is it one of those movies where the hapless hero has to repeat the story over and over for eternity? No, because this time the body is different, and the difference is twist enough for this picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, James Darren on trumpet and Jess Franco at the keyboard.

I'm tempted to shrug my shoulders and say, "Well, that's Jess Franco for you," but Paroxismus is actually one of the Spanish director's more accessible movies. What I mean is that, despite its impenetrable story, which bears no relation to the Sacher-Masoch novel it's sometimes named for, it's mostly free of Franco's signature idiosyncrasies and personal mythology. While we do get one of his favorite motifs, a singer writhing on her back, there's no "Dr. Orloff" or "Morpho" running around, at least in the English-language version. Venus in Furs takes us to a very strange place, but it isn't Jess Franco's personal world. Franco just makes it compellingly colorful and musical, if also a bit campy and sensual at the same time.

Above, Maria Rohm puts the moves on Margaret Lee. Below, Klaus Kinski contemplates his ill-fated one-man show about the Prophet Muhammad.

The movie actually sustains an air of genuine supernatural mystery until the ending leaves the story making almost no sense whatsoever. As I said, it's unclear how many people know that Wanda is dead, and it's even less clear whether anyone's investigating her apparently unnatural demise. The story as told may be possible only in the absence of a criminal justice system. But given what we can assume finally to be Jimmy's special perspective, can we really be sure that Wanda is dead. On the other hand, what we learn about Jimmy makes his relationship with Rita hard to explain -- except if we assume that his interpretation of his final vision is unreliable. For that matter, the entire film may be nothing but Jimmy's jazzy delirium on the beach, his fantasy of supernatural vengeance substituting for the steps he was apparently incapable of taking to secure justice for Wanda. At its trippy heart, Paroxismus may simply be a guilt trip.

If you're willing to do the interpretive work on your own, you could well appreciate Franco's film as an impressionistic puzzle, a set of variations on an ultimately hidden theme. But you could just as easily dismiss Paroxismus as reels of incoherent pretension, redeemed or not by visual flair and period flavor. It seems appropriate, somehow, that this movie is ultimately whatever each viewer makes of it.

1 comment:

Erich Kuersten said...

well said, I'd agree - this movie is prime Franco in that it gets 'better' with repeat viewings. I remember renting the VHS ten years or so ago and it was pan and scan faded dreck, my wife at the time was pissed I'd wasted two hours of her time... but in the newly restored DVD, the most impatient non-Franco fan in the world can at least groove on the deep reds, and I love the innovative way the Klaus Kinski Egypt segment moves from a discussion of a flashback, to the flashback, to reality, to death, so seamlessly. I thought S Soderbergh invented that idea for Ocean's 11!