[Paroxismus (...Pub una morta rivivere per amore?) / Venus im Pelz]
Italy / West Germany / United Kingdom 1969
Reviewed By-Kit Gavin Starring James Darren, Maria Rohm, Dennis Price, Margaret Lee and Klaus Kinski. Directed by Jess Franco Source: Blue Underground [United States] DVD Region 0 NTSC
Jimmy Logan [Darren], a trumpet player, wonders aimlessly along a beach near Istanbul, decides to dig up his trumpet from the sand, where he buried it before, for reason of which he is uncertain and cannot remember. "It all started high on a lonely note" he tells the audience. After this, he notices and drags from the roaring tide, the dead body of a beautiful woman, stabbed in the chest. Having dragged the body to the shore he recognises the body as being that of Wanda Reed, a glamorous beautiful young woman which he once saw being raped, beaten and killed during an S&M party which got out of control. Her murderers and torturers being an art dealer Percival Kapp [Dennis Price], a wealthy playboy Ahmed Kartobawi [Kinski] and a gorgeous lesbian photographer [Lee] named Olga. Having witnessed this murder, Jimmy fled to Rio de Janeiro.
Upon arrival in Rio, and continuing in his music, Jimmy starts and takes refuge in a "safe" but soulless relationship with Rita [Barbara McNair], a talented and attractive black nightclub singer. However the relationship between Jimmy and Rita starts to fall apart at the seams upon the arrival of Wanda at a jazz concert where he is playing. Infatuated and fascinated by the presence of Wanda, he follows the beautiful girl out and makes love to her at her ornate, furnished home surrounded by paintings.
Later, Wanda, seeking revenge on her murderers, sets about seducing each of the three of them in turn and leading them to their doom. First she seduces the art dealer, then the photographer and finally the sadistic playboy, upon succeeding in seducing each one in turn, bringing each one in turn to their death. As their relationship progresses, together with Wanda killing off her victims, the police give chase and pursue Jimmy and Wanda having possibly connected the two of them to the crimes committed. Wanda takes sanctuary in a graveyard and then promptly vanishes without trace. Whilst searching for her through the graves headstones Jimmy finds a gravestone bearing Wanda’s name with a mink coat draped over it.
In despair Jimmy tries to understand what is going on and finds himself on the beach again. He then notices a body a in the water like before and wades in to rescue it. However, all is not quite as he expects.
Venus in Furs, or Black Angel which was in fact the film’s shooting title, is not based upon the famous S&M novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch which would be dramatised the same year, also an Italian-West German co-production, by one time cinematographer Massimo Dallamano and starring Laura Antonelli, and later as Masoch, starring Paolo Malco. Indeed, it is likely that the title was purely taken for commercial purposes as during Towers’ collaborations with Franco, literary works were mainly the source for the inspiration behind the films, utilizing writers such as De Sade, Saxe Rohmer, and Bram Stoker. Franco sites the influence and inspiration behind the story being that of Cornell Woolrich and his novel Black Angel.
The casting of James Darren as the narrator of the film is an unusual one, according to the interview with Franco he initially wanted Jimmy to be black, but this was blocked by the American distributors. James Darren, an American actor who had been cast in mostly teen heart throb roles in the early 60’s and had tried to make a career as a singer a few years after, is actually pretty good in his performance as Jimmy, who spends the entire film, wandering, in a sense of confusion yet trying to give a rationalised narration and logic to events ongoing. Darren would go on to appear in numerous American TV series [such as T.J. Hooker and Fantasy Island] and later to work as one of the directors on various soap operas, etc. Also, cast opposite Darren as his loving girlfriend Rita is black singer Barbara McNair. McNair delivers a sympathetic performance, trying to understand the inner turmoil which haunts Jimmy and still loving him despite his infidelity and rejecting her to be with Wanda. McNair would shortly after have her own TV show and would appear opposite Sidney Poitier in the acclaimed They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!. As well as appearing as Jimmy’s spurned lover, McNair contributes some of the songs for the film.
Usually girlfriends or wives of producers are given a rough ride when it comes to their casting and Maria Rohm is no exception, having been the much younger companion of British producer Harry Alan Towers for the last forty plus years, since he "discovered" her on stage in Vienna, in her home country of Austria when she was just 19. After appearing in a series of small roles in films produced by Towers in the mid sixties, and as the stunt double for Senta Berger in Our Man in Marrakesh, Towers started to cast her in principal roles, mainly in his collaborations with Jess Franco in the late 1960s. Franco directed and created some of his best work during the time of this joint collaboration, working with some of the best actors, and the films during that time having some of the highest production values [with the exception of Faceless, produced by Rene Chateau in 1988] that Franco was ever to enjoy during his (still ongoing) cinematic career. Together with The Bloody Judge and Eugenie… The Story of Her Descent in Perversion, Rohm proved her strength both as an actress as much as a beautiful screen presence, emblematic of European cult cinema for all to enjoy.
Here Rohm, as the bewitchingly beautiful angel of death, the eponymous "Venus" of the films title isn’t required to do much in terms of acting, however her mesmerising presence is sufficient given the relatively little dialogue which Wanda is required to utter. Expressions are conveyed purely through the expressions on her face or her mannerisms for the most part. "It started the instant you saw her" tells Jimmy, and it is understandable given Rohm’s screen presence, at times just dressed in a mink fur coat, and tiny panties and black stockings underneath, and sporting various wigs in order to lead her killers, one by one into a fatal trap she has devised for each one of them.
The three homicidal libertine jetsetters who murder Wanda are also perfectly cast. All three - decadent, depraved, and corrupt, each equally deserving of their eventual retribution for having brought about the death of Wanda. Dennis Price, the art dealer, who’s career lead him to make 4 further movies with Franco, including cult favorite Vampyros Lesbos, and in fact Price was to make his final picture Dracula versus Frankenstein with Franco, before passing away prematurely shortly afterwards in October 1973 from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 58. Price’s role here surprisingly is completely wordless, not once does he speak throughout his entire performance onscreen. Yet dialogue is not needed and Wanda’s seduction of Price in his bedroom makes for one of the films most staggering and experimental uses of visuals. Price somehow manages to convey his feelings throughout his screen time despite a complete lack of dialogue on his part – quite an achievement.
Equally Kinski, if not more so, who initially starts as a sadist turns his tastes to masochism upon his seduction by Wanda, turns in a quality performance. Kinski had appeared opposite (albeit briefly) Rohm before in Justine and Count Dracula [both by Franco], and opposite Margaret Lee in plentiful movies together. Kinski here plays a sadist, who when seduced by the vengeful Wanda reverses roles and becomes the enchained masochist. The setpiece where Kinski, bound in chains, meets his doom is especially well shot, and Kinski plays his role with an icy, cool, perfection, once again his every expressions capturing every mood and twitch, in close-ups shot in wide-screen as opposed to later haphazard zooming.
The one female member, Olga, a lesbian, the beautifully dressed and epitome of "1960’s pretty", played by Margaret Lee, one time protégé of Towers, seduces Wanda at a party and turns out to be the cruellest of the three, by savagely whipping Wanda before assisting in her murder. However, she ultimately feels the most guilt and ends up taking her own life, cutting her wrists in the bath, arms crossed modestly covering her breasts whilst her life blood trickles away, in a sensitive non pornographic way. As Olga lies there in the bath, slowly dying, she remembers the crime she was a participant in with angst and remorse, thinking "I wanted so much to explain what was in my heart, feelings, when we did those awful things" . These almost tender words of profound regret add to the literal poetic beauty of the work. Indeed the feel does seem a paradox, an interesting combination of artistic/literal beauty, but at the same time there are scenes erring on pop-art 60 psychedelia mixed in with 1960’s vernacularisms (such as "Man, it was a rough scene") which almost seem like anachronisms to an audience in the 21st century, less than 40 years after the film was made.
Venus in Furs is such an atypical Franco film, yet it is none the less a beautiful example of Franco’s work, unlike the big budget Faceless, another atypical work by Franco, but which is an ugly Franco film, and plays more along the lines of a commercial American slasher movie, with little or no visual scope outside of a few isolated moments. There are faults to be found in the film, such as Franco having used perhaps a little too much stock footage of the world famous Carnival in Rio when introducing Jimmy’s move there. The voice over at times grates and is at times overly emphatic when it comes to points in the convoluted narrative. Also the dubbing is at times somewhat unsuitable, such as the voices used for Ahmed and for Olga, but at the same time the voice used for Wanda is quite convincing.
There are moments of a morbid funereal beauty coupled with an acid tinged psychedelic fantasy which may be real, or maybe hazy memories or may be purely dreams/nightmares. Characters, good and evil, are all portrayed as sad, lonely, confused, doomed. Even the three killers are portrayed with a degree of sympathy, their wealth having lead to an empty existence which in turn leads them to find kicks in S&M games of murder, rape and violence, which will ultimately spell their doom. There are echoes from other Franco films to be found in the movie and Franco enthusiasts will pick up on certain familiar motifs whilst watching. There are moments of clear experimentalism on the part of Franco, with the use of slow motion, colored filters over the lenses, polarised images and colors seeping over the field of view, creating a uniquely 60’s yet not outdated mode to project a certain ambience which has not aged. Given the professionalism of the cast and crew, the distorted confusing narrative structure of the piece, and mostly well paced (with the exception of the Carnival footage) Franco has created a highly personalised, eroticised yet undeniably beautiful and bizarre spectacle captured on celluloid.
Without doubt, the film here under review gives ample proof to those who have previously dismissed Franco as an untalented hack to be totally wrong, and that given sterling actors, funding for a good production and to be able to work within a reasonable timescale as well as being allowed to imbue a project with aspects of his own personality and ideology, that even Franco is capable of achieving greatness. The film is delirious, characters have feelings yet at the same time act as ciphers, mood, texture, sex, violence, eroticism and a nightmare world wrapped in a dreamscape of an uncertain reality where time makes no sense are all inspiring aspects which add to this film to being a "must see" from the whole cannon of Franco’s works. Desire is combined with imprisonment, the main character of Jimmy wonders through a maze, unable to escape the labyrinth from the first moment he happens upon Wanda’s body on that beach. The opening to the labyrinth is the image of death, and Jimmy’s wonderings through it will only lead to the entrance being the exit, the same conclusion, death once again. Similar in tone to Bava’s Lisa and the Devil with it’s motifs of death, doom and non-linear narrative which drifts in and out of dreams, leading to a tragic conclusion, Venus in Furs is often labelled incorrectly a horror film, which despite some horrific elements, the film certainly isn’t. A parallel might be drawn between this film and Franco’s similarly spellbinding, atypical Succubus, which by strange quirk of fate was what initially prompted Towers’ interest in the Iberian director. Both films have a disjointed narrative and screenplay, but once the film is seen in entirety makes clear and perfect sense, coupled with memorable imagery.
Sets and production design is high and the film radiates a gloss which is not often to be found in Jess Franco’s features, such as the scene where Olga clad in velvet seduces Wanda on a divan with the Venus de Milo behind her. The three killers, having been killed off by Wanda, end up in a red-bricked room, presumably representative of Hell, staring emptily forward whilst Wanda’s naked body lies naked on the floor in front of them. Kapp’s seduction and death, from being teased by Wanda on his bed to a haunting, mocking yet seductive series of reflections in his room which bring about Kapp’s demise. None of Franco’s trademark (and need to rush) zooms are in use here, and cinematography is by Angelo Lotti in his one time of working for Franco.
The music score at times excels, creating a beautiful morbid atmosphere, at is (the uncredited) Bruno Nicolai in the same full force which he was to show in other films for Franco and Towers. As well as Nicolai’s contribution, the score is contributed by the popular sixties musicians Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg, and it is totally in keeping with the mood and feel of the piece, although the belting out of "Venus in Furs will be smiling!" may be unsettling to some viewers given the lyrical turn of events as they unfurl on screen. Dubbing is not too bad either, McNair and Darren dub their own voices, but everyone else (inclusing Lee and Kinski) bith who spoke clear English (being Lee’s mother tongue after all) have been dubbed by others, surprisingly.
When Blue Underground announced that they were releasing this film on DVD, Franco and Euro-cult fans looked forward with baited breath for this release, which has been seldom seen outside of it’s original theatrical run, other than on a now out of print full screen American VHS which was presented full-frame and a smeary badly colored print, now out of print and commanding high prices on Ebay. The film had a theatrical release worldwide upon it’s completion, and even was re-released and retitled in Italy in 1979 (bizarrely removing Margaret Lee’s name from the credits on the posters). There don’t seem to have been problems with censorship issues, yet the film seems to have rarely surfaced until now. When it came to the present DVD release, there seemed as if for a while there were problems with rights issues, whether or not the film belonged to one of the major studios or not [viz. Paramount] and there were concerns that the film wouldn’t be released at all in the United States. However, fortunately, those rights issues were sorted out and the film has in now readily available.
The DVD has been correctly framed at 1:85:1, anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, and by the look of the DVD, the film has been struck from the original negative, presented fully uncut. There is extremely minor speckling on occasion during the film, and a couple of slight imperfections can be noticed briefly but this seems to be the fault of the original nagative when compared to earlier releases on VHS, the same problems occur, so this can be excused. Also, this is only really noticeable when comparing to the rest of the print, which is breathtaking. The picture all in all looks nothing short of glorious, with the bright garish 60’s colors shining through as much as much as the cold harsh grays of the waves when Jimmy is wondering along the beach at the start. Sound too is crisp and clear, presented in the original English mono, without any hisses or pops and perfectly suited to the soundtrack.
The main extra of the DVD is that of a recent interview with its director Jess Franco, in a featurette, perhaps unoriginally, entitled "Jesus in Furs". Franco discusses the creation of the film at length and his recollections over working with actors such as Klaus Kinski and with Dennis Price. Franco has previously discussed on DVDs, his appreciation and respect for Maria Rohm as an actress. He tells how his inspiration for the film came from a story which was told to him by Chet Baker, which comes as no surprise as Franco’s love of Jazz music is well chronicled, despite Franco’s stories in later years to err at times on one or the other side of honesty. None the less Franco is always fascinating as a story-teller and full of anecdotes for his films and he is a joy to listen to discussing one of his clearly preferred films. Given recent reports on various forums of Franco being unwell, he looks in good health and seems his usual enthusiastic self.
Another interview, regrettably only in audio format, is one with its star Maria Rohm. There are no interview segments this time however with her husband, producer Harry Alan Towers, who appeared on the earlier Blue Underground DVDs of Justine and Eugenie. Towers, still active as a producer today, presumably was busy on another one of his numerous productions. Regrettably Rohm doesn’t want to appear on camera, as it would have been nice to see how the actress looks today. So her interview plays over an image gallery. However she talks with earnest about her career in movies, speaking with affection for Franco, and other actors too whom she worked with. Her tone changes slightly when talking about Christopher Lee, being somewhat more reserved, but cracking a joke at his expense, and it sounds like Kinski and Rohm’s working relationship was somewhat strained to say the least, substantiating the rumor that Kinski was difficult to work with. Rohm speaks with a clear good command of English still retaining her native Austrian twang, and it also sounds like she is having fun remembering some people, as she giggles to herself at times when discussing various antics. One mistake is when she refers to Kinski and his semi-scandalous, rambling autobiography is that the wrong book is illustrated, what is shown is a German book of photos from Kinski’s films publish posthumously. Also neither Rohm nor Franco make any real mention of Margaret Lee bar one brief passing comment (by Rohm, who was a good friend of Lee’s for a good number of years after). Strange, as everyone else is mentioned.
Also included is a stills gallery for the film (I was unable to find my Italian stills and posters for the film under it’s "Paroxisimus" title, which I loaned BU, therein) and the US trailer for the film. The trailer actually is rather entertaining and enjoyable, well narrated and in keeping with the period in which it was released, and fortunately is not as filled with "spoilers" as many of the trailers at the time were. One regret is that are no interviews to be found with Margaret Lee (who these days lives in relative anonymity in California) and with James Darren (who lives near LA), who should have been readily available. Surely even Barbara McNair could have been located – but maybe these people didn’t want to discuss the film. I recently spoke to Lee on the telephone and she was somewhat embarrassed by the mention of the film, saying that it was considered to be "X Rated material" at the time. Even though the film isn’t, maybe that stigma still loomed over the heads of Darren and McNair, hence their non-presence on the DVD here.
Blue Underground never seem to use original poster art when designing their covers, and admittedly I had some reservations over their covers for releases such as the overly garish red on Killer Nun and the out and out horrible one for Late Night Trains, but I really like the bright yellow fetish cover here which is totally in keeping with the mood and bright colors that are found throughout the film. In conclusion, without a doubt, Venus in Furs, is truly one of the jewels in the tarnished crown of Jess Franco’s entire cinematic output. It is a beautiful, visually stunning diamond of a movie, admittedly a flawed one.
Story: 4 BITCH SLAPS Audio: 4 BITCH SLAPS Video: 4.5 BITCH SLAPS Extras: 3 BITCH SLAPS Overall: 4 BITCH SLAPS
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