Director: Jésus Franco
By Roderick Heath
Venus in Furs is one of Jésus Franco’s personal favourites from amongst his colossal roster of wild and woolly films. In spite of its widely known English title, it only shares that title and the name of the anti-heroine Wanda with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s infamous founding tome of masochistic literature, Venus in Furs. In fact, Franco’s film was inspired by a conversation Franco had with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker about counterculture mores, and was, in its early drafts, an interracial romantic drama. That aspect is still present in the narrative, and yet unenthusiasm by the producers caused Franco to rewrite the story along the lines of the theme he returned to obsessively in this phase of his career: the sepulchral femme fatale consuming her tormentors and lovers.
Venus in Furs was one of Franco’s close-to-mainstream works, sporting a fairly high-profile cast that included James Darren, Klaus Kinski, Franco regular Dennis Price, and singer-actress Barbara McNair. But it can’t be mistaken for anything other than a work by the era’s most wayward trash auteur. Structurally, Venus in Furs resembles many horror films exemplified by Dead of Night (1945), in its cyclical storytelling and bookending gimmick of an irrational, closed circuit-like entrapment in the zone between life and death. Whilst relatively restrained in terms of the sexuality that infests Franco’s later works like Vampyros Lesbos, there’s still plenty of sex and sadism here, albeit contoured more into the film’s oneiric, lapping, inherently fetishistic textures. Venus also contends with some familiar problems of low-budget European cinema of this era, particularly in the dubiously employed location footage of Rio de Janeiro and Carnivale, with Darren’s drippy voiceover droning on to give the dancing girls relevance, with such lines as, “Man it was a wild scene. If they wanted to go that route, it was their bag.”
Darren plays Jimmy Logan, a jazz musician who awakens from what is apparently a long drug binge in a seaside bungalow in Istanbul. He flees to the beach and digs in the sand, pulling out his buried trumpet case and blowing a few rusty licks before he spots a body rolling in the surf and pulls it onto the shore. He’s stunned to recognise the corpse as that of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm). Addled by drug flashbacks and unable to properly discern hallucination from memory, Jimmy still seems to recall Wanda from some of the parties he played at, including one thrown by a kinky, wealthy art dealer Ahmed Kortobawi (Kinski), and his sensualist friends Olga (Margaret Lee) and Percival Kapp (Price). Jimmy had a crush on the beautiful, flighty Wanda, but one night, he happened to glimpse a terrible scene in which Wanda was cornered and brutalised by the sadistic trio, with Olga and Percival whipping and raping her and Ahmad cutting her with a dagger to drink her blood. Months later, Jimmy, now in the employ of Hermann (Paul Muller), a rich man who keeps him and a band on permanent party hire, is in Rio, back on an even keel and playing well. He’s soon startled not only to find Percival and Olga in town, but also to see Wanda walk into a gig of his one night.
Jimmy’s subsequent delirium-soaked trysts with Wanda are barely kept in check by his soul singer girlfriend Rita (McNair), as he ponders the metaphysics of the situation: “How can you run from a dead person unless you’re dead yourself?” Wanda keeps reappearing clad in furs and lingerie, drawing Jimmy into bed with her, commencing a completely corporeal affair, and yet the hysterical jazzman keeps fleeing her afterwards, utterly bemused as to what’s going on. Wanda’s casual presence at Hermann’s parties seems to reassure him that she’s very much alive and that he must have been mistaken about the body he found on the beach.
One night, Wanda appears to Percival and seems to taunt him with her ghostly, erotic presence, filling his mirrors and finally appearing in her mangled, post-mortem state, causing Percival to expire from a heart attack. Later, at one of Hermann’s parties, Jimmy is startled by both Olga’s and Wanda’s presence and positively alarmed when they start making out. But when Wanda later turns up at Olga’s photographic studio, she again transforms in her brutalised corpse, driving Olga to cut her own wrists in guilty sorrow. When Rita walks out on Jimmy, he and Wanda flee back to Istanbul, where Wanda soon enough appears to Ahmad.
Superfluous dialogue and clumsily inserted travelogue footage aside, Franco’s filmmaking here, when his luxurious visuals have a chance to play out, is boisterous and continually dazzling, replete with disorienting edits, slow motion, reflected images, ultra close-ups, and distorting effects, to conjure a fervent, dreamlike tone. In the bookend sequences that see Jimmy running along the beach to retrieve floating bodies, Franco utilises slow motion to offer a numbing study of the dreamland sensation of travelling without moving, as he closes the narrative’s looping structure. Franco’s intriguing fondness for dispelling standard gothic tropes, in favour of bright sunlight and lush colourings, is in full flower. His work benefits from a seemingly higher budget than he often gained, sporting fine photography and careful lighting that results in a truly sensual visual experience, a sprawl of bold reds and blues, hallucinatory daylight shots and inky darks.
Like few films I’ve ever seen, Venus in Furs captures the heady atmosphere of two underground artistic strains—fragments of S&M comics interwoven with a feeling of hipster alienation captured in effective visual terms (as opposed to the cornball hip-isms Jimmy speaks), reminiscent in places of other fly-on-the-wall period documents like Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966). That Darren’s Jimmy Logan is based on Baker is patently obvious, and the film seems to well directly from within Logan’s addled perceptions. Particularly the early scenes, as Jimmy claws at a window or digs into the beach to retrieve his instrument and conjure the drowned Wanda from the waves, possess a flavour that communicates a genuinely strung-out mind. Franco himself was a jazz musician, and his impressionistic scenes from the milieu of Jimmy’s playing are evocative (Franco even appears briefly as one of Logan’s pianists), whilst the totality of the film has an intricately musical structure.
The mostly jazz-inflected score, by Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann, is as striking as that for Vampyros Lesbos, and is more integral to the film, as musical motifs blend with and define the on-screen drama. Jimmy’s intimate, somehow solipsistic performance style—he’s often hunched over, lost deep in his solos—evoke his drifting out of touch with reality. Sequences of him and his band’s performing punctuate the story’s deaths, with the ghostly Wanda continuously returning to confront Jimmy on stage after her vengeful visitations, signing him to a kind of artistic contract to witness, evoking a shaman or bard, or the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, as he plays out Wanda’s death chant. Wanda’s killings are punctuated by a memorable soul theme that recurs like a dark mantra, with the promise that “Venus in furs will be smiling”, before McNair sings the full song as a triumphant hymn in the conclusion.
Although the resulting film isn’t fixated upon portraying a tragic, boundary-pushing new-age romance, as was his original notion, Franco’s initial idea is still present and important, realised in the failing romance of Jimmy and Rita, with Rita attempting to sit out Jimmy’s obsession with Wanda like very much the “black angel” of another alternate title, and yet finally driven off by his obsession. The intimacy between Jimmy and Rita is warmly, tenderly convincing, and stands in contrast with the rather less healthy intimacy Wanda engages in. Delicately yet feverishly erotic, Wanda’s killings are fascinating because rather than visiting her tormentors with violent wrath, she approaches them like a lover, giving them exactly what they want before reflecting the truth of their twisted psyches (Franco’s love of mirrors gets a workout), particularly in her tryst with Olga, which plays out as a tragic romance. Ahmad greets Wanda like he’s been waiting for her, and gets her to enact a part he thinks she has been conjured to play for him, the slave girl who turns the tables on her sultan, which leads to him dying in a perfect masochistic paroxysm, dangling from the ceiling. Rohm’s frigid beauty intrinsically suits the character’s passive malevolence.
Fascinating images abound, like a nearly naked Wanda descending a staircase painted in vivid white and stepping onto a floor carpeted in saturated red, leaving behind Olga in her white coffin of a bathtub, her lifeblood slowly staining the water, expiating her sins whilst begging Wanda’s forgiveness. This scene’s mix of conveyed physical pain, powerfully transgressive emotion, and expressionist use of décor clearly predict some of David Lynch’s pet effects, and confirm for me the impression I had in other Franco viewings of his influence on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This sequence’s visual motifs are predicted by a most bizarre and gorgeous moment: Olga first encounters Wanda at one of Hermann’s parties sprawled on a red couch, caressing a female statuette’s thigh, and encouraging Wanda to kiss her. Several party guests gather to watch, and one bends down to paint their cheeks, and another showers them with white pillow feathers as if sprinkling confetti on the newly-weds or spreading petals on his priestesses. The Olga-Wanda sequences in the centre of the film are almost a short film in themselves, a classic of sapphic-surrealist erotica.
Finally, when the police track Wanda to the hotel she’s sharing with Jimmy, the lovers flee, leading to a memorably off-kilter car chase. Wanda soon slips away and enters a cemetery, leaving her fur coat lying upon her own gravestone. Jimmy returns to the beach in the same frazzled state and discover another body in the surf: his own. Wanda and he were both ghostly remnants. By this point, the narrative form completely shatters, saturated colour effects infect the frame, and fragmented shots of Olga, Ahmad, and Percival locked in a red room (another Lynchian image) with Wanda’s savaged corpse, perhaps invoking their damnation. Franco zooms away from Jimmy’s discovery of his own body and quotes the same John Donne passage as an epigraph as was used in the Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim, leaving us to ponder a weird and ragged gem of subterranean cinema.