Sunday, April 7, 2013

NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT (Les cauchemars naissent la nuit, 1970)

In a flashback, the late Jess Franco's troubled heroine Anna (Diana Lorys) recounts her time working in a "second-rate" strip club in Zagreb. It's unclear whether she means merely a second-rate strip club or a second-rate club for Zagreb -- then still a Communist city -- but by any standard it's a pretty poor affair and a minimal set. The interesting thing about the flashback is Anna's recollection of her boss's advice to strippers. Stretch your act out as long as you can, he told her; if you make it last, it excites the customer more. For the boss that means the customers will buy more drinks. But presuming that you can't buy booze in European movie theaters, what's Franco's excuse?

Superficially, it sounds like a rationalization for Franco's use of the strip act as filler as he struggles to get his feature to acceptable length. But there may be a statement of artistic principle or purpose here as well, not to mention a bit of autobiographical confession. As Lorys went through her motions, watched by and watching Cynthia, the film's femme fatale (Colette Jacobine), I had an vision of Jess Franco sitting in a strip club, watching just such a protracted performance, and fantasizing about the stripper. Not just about screwing her or watching her screw another man or woman, but about an entire imagined life of appropriately exotic adventures. Dancers figure so prominently in his films that something like this has to have been going on. There's a masturbatory circularity to it all if fantasizing about strippers led him to write and direct fantasies interrupted by long, sometimes seemingly pointless strip club scenes. They may have been practical to him as time fillers and necessary titillation for the audience, but pointless? Perhaps not.

Of all the strip clubs in all the Communist world, Anna has to choose this one so she can fall under Cynthia's sway. Seduced, betrayed and hypnotized, she's meant to be the fall girl after Cynthia bumps off her co-conspirators in a jewel robbery. In this film the plot is more of an annoyance than the filller. For Franco fans the real interest is the generational transition from Lorys, the heroine of The Awful Dr. Orloff, to Soledad Miranda, who has a small role as the impatient moll of one of the jewel robbers. The film's real subject, if it really can be said to have one, is Franco's fascination with the female form, draped and undraped. He can make Lorys wrapping herself into a sari one of the movie's true highlights. There's a fine line separating the tedious from the hypnotic, and at any given moment Franco can be found on either side. This picture is already a long way down from Orloff, but Franco's career was a roller coaster ride with ups as well as more downs to come. He kept on working as often as he could, hoping to make the experience last as long as possible. I can't call myself a real fan, but for those who followed him all the way, making it last seems to have worked the spell Franco wanted. It has sparked a fantasy not easily shaken off. Some may say it's the fantasy that Franco was a great filmmaker, but it really could be anything. If you can't just walk away from his movies you may never fully leave them behind.


Sam Juliano said...

Well I can't say I was ever a fan of his work, and there were instances when I regarded him as a cinematic hack of sorts. Yet he's a cult figure, and more than a few see him as a considerable art house figure, comparable as a kind of Jean Rollin/Lucio Fulci hybrid with a sprinkle of Argento. I have never watched this particular film, but appreciate the excellent review. He redefined the term "prolific" and worked right up till his death just weeks ago. I suppose a re-assessment is in order.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I see Franco as a take him or leave him proposition, with no dishonor involved if he leaves you utterly cold. He's an interesting subject for auteurist analysis even if many of his films can't stand scrutiny on their own merits. Nightmares can hardly be called a good film but I think it may tell us something about Franco and his overall body of work.