After experiencing intense dreams of the goddess Venus appearing to him in a heavy coat of fur, arguing against the cold passionless bore of modern civilization in favor of the wild lustful pagan life, our nameless focus character turns to his friend Severin for advice. Given a manuscript, the narrator reads of Severin's youth, and of the time he spent with the inhumanly beautiful Wanda, with whom he engaged in a most strange affair. The pair chose to live as master and slave, with Severin as the property of whatever cruel desires crossed Wanda's mind. Though she at first objected to the arrangement, due to the inherent dangers of its dichotomy, she eventually gives in and fulfill's Severin's desires for a wild pagan love life to a greater degree than he ever dreamed. The question soon becomes how to escape the savage beast he turned his lover into, and the answer forms the basis for how the narrator ultimately resists the temptations of his dreams.
I gotta be honest, I really didn't like this one. Not everything springs into the world fully formed, especially not ideas, which evolve and adapt over time to varying social norms; and I get that Venus in Furs is one of the very first explorations of masochism in a context we understand it today. However, the march of time has not been kind to the story at all. From a modern perspective, the conceptualization of masochism as a corruptive, unnatural urge destined to destroy all who practice it is just absurd, and the pitfalls the characters trip over in order to get them to the point of an unhealthy, actively destructive relationship traceable back to their masochistic ways is downright laughable. There's so little communication about mutual desires, and a complete lack of acknowledgement of the possibility of safe words, or, y'know... not dedicating one's entire waking life to sexual fantasies, especially if they involve physical and verbal abuse.
But even if I try and strip away my more advanced perspective on the topic of sexual deviancy, and look at the work on purely the intended terms of engaging in a dialogue about the intellectual and philosophical implications of an atypical relationship, the work still fails. It has a nasty tendency to take on an absolutist position on its ideas about how people connect with one another, the ultimate poison any storyteller can down to kill their credibility. When you're not only asserting your way of characterizing the world is the ONLY way the world can be, but specifically claiming men and women can't truly love and respect one another, because you either have men in a submissive role loving a woman in a dominant role, or women in a submissive role respecting a man in a dominate role... I'm sorry, but your argument both reduces the complex network of human interaction down to too simple a level, AND is straight up backwards in the way it views gender roles to boot. I don't care if this came out in 1870, it's...
...apologies are in order. I appear to have been reviewing Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella Venus in Furs, when I'm supposed to be reviewing Jess Franco's 1969 film Venus in Furs (also known as Paroxismus in the original Italian), which of course have nothing at all to do with one another.
Yeah, bit of a weird connection there, but as I understand it, Jess Franco had the idea to make a film a mixed-race love story, only for his production studio at the time to balk at the idea. By the time the idea made its way to a full-scale release, the love story had become a sort of psychedelic thriller, and the title Venus in Furs, purely to boost interest in the film amongst the viewing public. As noted, the film's title is completely non-indicative of its actual content, and there are no attempts at using masochistic indulgences as a lens through which to examine the basic nature of interpersonal relations. There IS a single sequence that somewhat reflects the ideas present in Sacher-Masoch's original text, but otherwise the film is... well, I was about to say its own unique beast, but as with the last Franco film reviewed here, it doesn't really strike me as wholly original.
I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's talk about the film first before we get into dissecting its cinematic influences.
Jimmy Logan (James Darren of Deep Space Nine "fame") is a trumpeter wandering the world adrift after having seen the most terrible things. Some time ago, while playing in Greece, Jimmy witnessed the murder of one Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) by the playboy Ahmed (Klaus Kinski), the art dealer Kapp (Dennis Price), and the photographer Olga (Margaret Lee), only to find her body washed ashore in Istanbul years later. Shaken, Jimmy retreats to Rio during Carnival and the arms of soul singer Rita (Barbara McNair), only to find Wanda has suddenly reentered his life, despite supposedly being dead. As Jimmy attempts to navigate the crumbling psyche brought on by her appearance, Wanda sets about getting some of the strangest revengeance ever on those who brought about her murder.
Turning into your own corpse to inspire suicidal grief isn't what I'd call a typical vengeance technique.
I have to say, right off the bat, the movie doesn't have too much of a point to it. While I'd be hard-pressed to call the process by which it navigates the narrative pedestrian, the basic beat-by-beat structure calls for nothing more demanding than a regular alteration between Jimmy's tormented puzzling out of his current situation, and Wanda's execution of her revenge. By the time those who did the dirty deed have gotten what's coming to them, the film doesn't have much else to do, and answers the question of what exactly has been driving these events with a set of final twists I don't think quite mesh with one another at all. The first one relating to Wanda is easy enough to swallow, and could potentially lead to some interesting interpretations, but the attempt at a shocker for Jimmy just doesn't gel right, and does nothing but confuse the movie's intent. Was it about the inherent pointlessness and cyclical nature of revenge? The experience of getting caught up in obsession? Some statement on the details of our final resting places? I could pull ideas out of thin air all day long, but I don't believe there's much in the actual text of the film to support any of them, and on top of muddling the message, the ending just isn't satisfying compared to what came before.
If you're wondering, so am I.
Whether or not the anti-climax ruins your enjoyment of Venus in Furs is largely dependent on whether or not you think the journey towards it is actually worth the 70 or so minutes it takes to get there. Personally, while I wouldn't call it mind-blowing or revelatory, I think Franco manages to take us on a trip through uncertainty and revenge that's intriguing enough visually and musically to receive strong praise.
The score of this movie serves it incredibly well. Developed by Manfred Mann (with uncredited assistance from Stu Phillips) during the period of his career between when everybody only cared about him for "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" and when everybody only cared about him for "Blinded By the Light," it alternates much like the plot between swinging jazz-rock for Jimmy's scenes, and eerie pianos and electronic noise for Wanda's. The leitmotif for Wanda, especially when interrupting either segment of the score with its scintillating, otherworldly chimes, is quite something, and accentuates the otherworldly nature of the character and her revenge scheme quite well. In addition, the theme of "Venus in Furs Will Be Smiling," which plays after every kill and over the closing credits of the film (make of that what you will) works as a capper to each segment of Wanda's story. You can check out some examples of the score below to get a taste of what I mean (though as per usual with links to YouTube, expect it to be gone by this time next year).
If it seems like I have less of an idea on how to write about music than I do on visuals or story, it's only because that's exactly the case.As to the visuals, I of course mean things like the montages of Rio during Carnival time used as transitions, the dark seedy clubs Jimmy and his backing band play, the striking use of red environments whenever someone's about to bite it, and of course the editing during Wanda's kills and Jimmy's moments of doubt, which features what I can only describe as psychic flashes of dread and slow dawning realization. They seem to be her most powerful, effective weapon against those who betrayed her. But most of all, I'm referring to Wanda herself.
Holy jaegerbombers.You'll recall from my review of Miss Muerte how I praised Estella Blain's performance as Nadia, and how she managed to get quite a lot of milage out of a disaffected performance with nothing but her intense eyes. Maria Rohm manages much the same, but with what feels like twice the intensity, and looking drop-dead gorgeous on top of it. Normally I shy away from complimenting an actor's appearance in favor of more relevant aspects related to their performance techniques, but credit is due where credit is due - the costuming, make-up, Rohm's natural appearance (from what I can gather from what little photos there are), and the shooting style all make for a character who uses her seductive appearance and ways to just barely conceal the cold fire burning right behind her eyes. As with the entire movie, I wouldn't call it one of the greats, and the frequent displays of nudity are a part of the whole package probably keep her out of the running for the goods, but she's quite something in the role. And on top of all that, she's got someone doing her hair in a way I'd kill to know how to do myself.
Of course, the film falters in a few minor ways. In spite of Rohm's great look and physical acting, her dialogue delivery isn't really up to snuff, and neither is anyone else's for that matter - Kinski's dialogue was even dubbed over with another actor. Much of the film's strength comes from its visual style, and when we have to stop to listen to a conversation between Darren and McNair, it gets dreadfully dull dreadfully fast. Additionally, though the editing on the whole is good, especially in the murder sequences, the film has a nasty habit of slipping up on the continuity editing in extremely obvious ways. Prominent background elements and shot angles jump far more than acceptable in transitions from one take of a shot to another, and I find myself taken out of the film far more than I should be by changes in actor poses without a cut. And for as good as the overall style of the editing is, there's no excusing some of the downright bizarre choices made towards the start and end that look like they come straight out of the Baywatch school of filming.
But then there's the big potential issue I cited at the beginning, and much the same issue I took with the last Franco film: the lack of originality. Several other reviewers have noted this, but the overall idea, structure, and even elements of the attempted twist ending are cribbed straight from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. While the changes made during production mean one can't really say for certain if any of this was intentional in the original conception or the result of changes made to the script during development, but the overall effect remains the same. Hitchcock had a bigger budget, better actors, a more advanced grasp on cinematic language and how to advance it, and a MUCH deeper well of subtext and thematics to draw from than Franco does here. As such, one can't shake the feeling of watching an inferior Vertigo during certain stretches of Venus in Furs.
I won't give specifics, but this scene in particular feels very much like the ending of Vertigo, in spite of the... subtle editing techniques.
This said, you probably expect me to not recommend this film on those particular lacking merits. However, if you'll remember the Miss Muerte review, my specific issue was a lack of standout elements beyond the lingering feeling of having seen everything before. Despite the obvious Hitchcock influence, I find myself thinking less about Vertigo or the disappointing finale, and more about the way the music compliments the action, or how incredibly striking Wanda's presence is when combined with her leitmotif, or the kill sequences. In spite of coming off as an inferior film to its originator, Venus in Furs still stands out as a strong movie in my mind due to the unique twists it places on the structure it's built upon, and how markedly impressive the execution on those elements is. In a word, Franco has something here he didn't have the last time we saw him - a stamp to place on the final product.
Venus in Furs likely isn't for everyone. It contains too much borderline pornographic content and displays of nudity for me to say otherwise. However, its well-executed music, strongly arresting female lead, and the uniqueness of the manner by which it presents the kills are all enough for me to say you should seek this film out if at all possible. I had my doubts going in after the last Jess Franco picture, but having seen what he can do when working with stronger material makes me excited for the next time we bump into him here, however far down the road that may be.
Body Count: There's definitely at least three deaths in this movie. However, depending on how you choose to view certain segments and interpret a few narrative twists, there's anywhere from four to six.
Franchise Potential: This is a one-off, plain and simple. While I'd love to seek out more films with Maria Rohm looking like she does here, I don't think the things I liked here would gain much from sequelization.
That's all for this week. Be sure to join me next time when we start to cut our teeth on the very first Stephen King film on the list, with 1992's Sleepwalkers. Have a good night, and see you then.
Nobody will ever go harder than Manfred Mann in this movie.