Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Paroxismus (1969)

... aka: Black Angel
... aka: Venus in Furs

Directed by:
Jesus Franco

Filmed in Italy, Spain and Turkey with a multitude of investors each seeming to want something different, the genesis of this movie began with a conversation Franco had with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker one evening in a Paris nightclub. Baker had told the director that once you're in the zone while performing it's almost as if you've left reality: a three-minute solo can seem like it lasts for an eternity as your whole life and all your desires flash before you. For anyone who's played a musical instrument for years, getting lost in the music isn't a difficult concept to grasp. The trumpet, in particular - which requires mastery of breath control and the ability to focus through a haze of light-headedness - is an instrument especially in key with withdrawal and fantasy. From that basic concept, Franco came up with a tale about an aged black musician who starts a unreal love affair with a beautiful white woman who's only a figment of his imagination. Writing the first treatment with Harry Alan Towers (titled "Black Angel"), Franco soon got word that the producers refused to do a movie featuring a romance between a black man and white woman. However, a reverse relationship was perfectly fine with them. From there, the script was retooled to feature a white musician (whom Franco partially based on Baker) with a black 'real life' lover and a white dream lover.

Given a short list of actors for the lead, Franco eventually settled on James Darren because he liked him on the TV series The Time Tunnel and he had experience playing the trumpet. Instead of the story he'd already planned and penned, AIP then insisted Franco adapt the novel "Venus in Furs" by Leopold van Sacher-Masoch. He said sure thing and went about shooting the retooled script as planned anyway, throwing in a few shots of star Maria Rohm in a fur coat to please them and for use on the poster and advertising materials. The end result - for better or worse - was Venus in Furs. It's a slow, ponderous little fantasy that induces wonder and sleep in about equal measure: the very definition of uneven. And apparently a pretty polarizing one. One of Franco's most-watched endeavors, the reviews tend to be either glowingly (IMO, overly) positive or completely (IMO, unfairly) scathing. The truth - as with many other things - lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. There are elements of brilliance here, but they've been laced into an otherwise tedious film. So given the obstacles he faced to even get this made, Franco hasn't quite made lemonade from lemons. He's made lemonade from a frozen concentrated tube of lemon-flavored juice drink.

Darren is sullen Jimmy Logan, a man who lives for his music: "A guy like me without a horn is like, well, a man without words." He unearths his trumpet from under the sand on an Istanbul beach before pulling the corpse of a dead but still beautiful young woman - Wanda Reed (Rohm) - out of the Black Sea. He recognizes her from a party he played at not long ago. There, a trio of kinky jet setters; millionaire playboy Ahmed Kortobawi (Klaus Kinski), art dealer Percival Kapp (Dennis Price) and fashion photographer Olga (Margaret Lee), had gotten together to rape and murder the poor girl. Feeling somehow connected to Wanda, Jimmy decides to escape to Rio de Janiero during Carnivale. He's not even sure why he decided to flee in the first place, uttering the prophetic words "How can you run from a dead person unless you're dead yourself?" While getting romantically involved with patient and understanding singer Rita (Barbara McNair), Jimmy is haunted by visions of Wanda, who soon becomes his lover and tells him she doesn't even know who she is. She does however know that she has a murder to avenge. Her own.

Much of this is imaginatively presented in the director's usual style with sometimes novel use of out-of-focus shots and, most especially, several wonderful slow motion sequences utilizing a grainier film stock. The scenes bookmarking the film on the beach in Istanbul are especially haunting. The jazzy soundtrack (much by Manfred Mann, who also can be seen performing in the film) alternates between eerie and grating: Every time Wanda kills one of her murderers the soundtrack screams out "Venus in furs will be smilin'!" over and over again. Kitschy! There's almost no narrative thrust and very little dialogue, just lots of cryptic narration from the lead actor. Ultimately, the director's refusal to humanize most of the characters results in one of those "And I'm supposed to care about all this, because...?" type of feelings, though this seems like the kind of movie that might grow on one with repeat viewings. Rohm (fast becoming one of my favorite Euro actresses from this era) and Kinski both have the look and natural charisma to pull off their blank, enigmatic roles, though the other actors are less successful.

In an interview on the DVD, Franco himself doesn't seem completely pleased with how the film turned out, and says it was reedited in a "gratuitous" way after he'd finished his final cut. Not to be confused with at least two other movies with the same title - Joseph Marzano's Venus in Furs (1967) and Massimo Dallamano's Devil in the Flesh (1969) aka Venus in Furs - released around the same time. It was originally rated X, but would easily be an R today.



CavedogRob said...

What a cast! Franco does it again!

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

He did something all right, but I'm not quite sure what. :D This is one of those that needs a little time to marinate with me.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like this movie at all.

Elliot James said...

My favorite Franco film. How can the soundtrack not be on CD after 40 years?

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

That IS surprising there's no soundtrack. It's one of the film's best attributes.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...