Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Devil in the Flesh / Venus in Furs (1969)

“Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the Queen of Hearts every time?” -Little River Band 

The book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs (1870) is a great inspiration to those of us who wish to be better poets for the women we love, the women we worship, the women we want to be dominated and enslaved by in the bedroom. I found a lot to relate to from Masoch’s writing, but I was kind of bummed that the book turned out to be a cautionary tale in the end. (Way to kink-shame, Book.)
Massimo Dallamano, cowriter and director of one of the best gialli ever made, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), directed a couple good modern adaptations of Victorian era books: the aforementioned Venus in Furs and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. Dallamano’s Dorian Gray from 1970 really feels updated for its era, trying something a little bit different while remaining faithful to the spirit of the novel. The same could be said of the Dallamano directed Devil in the Flesh (aka Venus in Furs, not to be confused with the Jess Franco film of the same name, from the same year).

I had first watched Devil in the Flesh many years ago as part of the POP! EROTICA FEST DVD-set from Shameless, which also included The Frightened Woman (1969) and Baba Yaga (1973). With Devil in the Flesh, I mostly remembered it being some kind of subversive romance story about a guy, Severin (Régis Vallée), who meets an attractive woman, Wanda von Dunajew (Laura Antonelli), who embodies his “ideal.” He eventually marries Wanda while convincing her to oblige in his cuckolding fantasy, born from a certain childhood trauma, by making him her willing slave who consigns himself to embarrassingly pose as a chauffeur and serve her while also having to endure her being with other lovers. These lovers don’t at first know that the creepy servant hanging around is actually her husband. Voyeuristically watching Wanda with other men seems to torment him in a way that also kind of excites him too. She eventually hates him for it, and it ultimately becomes apparent that this relationship was a bad idea from the start.

It is not quite as inspirational and poetic as the book it is based on, but the film Devil in the Flesh is an interesting little curiosity from the sex revolution era that relies, I thought, less on the idea of worshiping and being-a-consenting-slave-to-one’s-lover, as in the book, and more on the extramarital sex aspect, particularly that of a man who consents to his wife’s affairs and loves her all the more for it. This kind of marriage/relationship dynamic was heavily covered and espoused in a lot of the writings by Emmanuelle Arsan (Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane) and framed by Arsan (as I remember and interpret it) as an iconoclastic ideal that could lead to a higher form of love and the end of jealously, war, and strife. For me, the theme was brought to beautiful fruition in the Rollet-Andriane written and directed Laure (1976) with Annie Belle. Other films such as My Wife, A Body to Love (1973) and Devil in the Flesh on the other hand, seem, to me, to warn against permitting/encouraging one’s wife to take other lovers. In the former film, the husband who on the outside seemed accepting of his wife’s affairs, we find out, was on-the-inside jealous the entire time and eventually murders his wife’s lovers. In Devil in the Flesh, despite their “agreement,” the wife, Wanda, eventually loathes and hates her husband, Severin, for encouraging her to take other men and for what he’s made her into as a result.

Severin is a voyeur who falls for Wanda, before she even personally knows him, while spying on her from next door through the wall of her flat while she is undressed, draping herself in furs, or taking in a lover. She becomes his ultimate fantasy, one he can look forward to coming true.

Early on in their relationship and marriage, they shag on a regular basis. They like to get kinky in the bedroom, as Severin enjoys being dominated and whipped by Wanda. Severin also finds it more pleasing to take her immediately after she’s been with another man, a quick interchange after the first man is done, to which Wanda eventually replies to Severin, “you're right, I feel I’m yours all the more.” At first, Wanda just seemed to want a normal marriage, but Severin’s sexual proclivities brings out the tiger in her. He seems to regret the cruelty that results in her. She legitimately beats the shit out of him with the whip at one point, making Severin bed-ridden, after she unloads all of the pent-up hatred and aggression she accumulated for being something she never really wanted to be for him.

The idea of being a slave to one’s cherished wife sounds appealing as long as things don’t go too far or get too out of hand, which is where both the book and the movie take things, in that wife and husband start to actually become what they were only at first pretending to be. At the onset of things, Severin has expectations that Wanda will be cruel, and, like a despotic queen, dominate him without inhibition. He wishes for her to entirely consume him, but of course it's the age-old fable of be careful what you wish for.

Of course, Severin's only happy when Wanda plays by his rules. He only starts to show jealousy when she dares to do things her way.  

At one point Severin tells Wanda that she is free. But I often wonder if she really is free. She's led to believe she is free, but she is also made into what he wants her to be for him, something she doesn't really want to be. He encourages her to take other lovers, permits her to be with them in front of his eyes. It's apparent she may've never really been free at all but still under his control. In a way, even as her "slave," Severin still has the power in the relationship. That is until Bruno (Loren Ewing) comes along. 

Laura Antonelli is a fabulous choice to play, what is to Severin, a goddess figure to love and revere, so much so as to find pleasure in being a willing slave to her. Also, Antonelli’s performance with a whip/crop in this movie should be considered the stuff of legend. 

(Devil in the Flesh was one of a few films (see also Bali (1970) and Simona (1974)) Laura Antonelli starred in before her breakout role in Malizia (1973) that was rereleased/revived/revamped later under a different title thanks to Antonelli becoming an Italian sex symbol.)

The theme of pleasure through experienced pain and suffering in Masoch’s writing came to be the source of the term masochism. Masoch, like Marquis de Sade got a pain-related word named after him. While Devil in the Flesh does explore masochism, it does take a brief sojourn to the realms of sadism in a fever dream sequence that Severin has after he is bed ridden from Wanda’s vicious physical whip assault on him, suggesting that most masochists when pushed will ultimately tap into their heretofore unrealized inner sadist as well. 

Devil in the Flesh might come off as ridiculous to some or given the tone of the film also kind of funny. It’s also very beautiful and kinky. The playful and kitschy music (composed by Gianfranco Reverberi -The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973)) has an odd flavor but works and really transports you to the era. The whacky, rockin’ component to the soundtrack really “slaps,” especially during a very de Sadean scene that takes place towards the end, involving the dominant sadist Bruno, who was literally picked up off of the street to be one of Wanda’s new lovers. Bruno really stirs things up between the married couple. The ending does turn things around a bit without entirely undermining the point of the book.

I wasn’t really moved by Devil in the Flesh when I first saw it a while back. It was my interest in erotic literature that I developed, particularly the writings of Emmanuelle Arsan and Marquis de Sade, which eventually led me to Masoch’s book Venus in Furs, a book I savored and at least attempted to fully digest. While reading it, I was looking forward to checking out the film version directed by Dallamano again, and I have to say, I appreciated it more as a lover of erotica, particularly of the more poetic and philosophical kind. I think when I first saw it, I was hoping more for a giallo or something more on the exploitation side and was kind of let down by how tame and even kind of whimsical it came off as. I was not yet familiar with the charms of Laura Antonelli either. Recently, I came to notice and appreciate a lot of nice touches, particularly the rain storm that picks up during an outdoor love scene that subsequently dies out when the sex is over. I thought this was beautiful. I enjoyed recognizing little parts from the book that were at the same time quite different in the movie. I also liked the way the story develops like an experiment to test Severin’s theories about frustrations in monogamy. I don’t believe the story necessarily yields an accurate outcome, but it certainly is an entertaining one. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Justine (2016)

“Justine, your prison was my kingdom come.” -Virgin Steele 

Were it not for Jess Franco, I probably would not have had even a passing interest in the writings of eighteenth century troublemaker Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse Franҫois, but thanks to Franco films like Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie (1970), Eugenie de Sade (1973), and this prominent S&M aesthetic very much characteristic to a lot of Franco’s films (as well as Renato Polselli’s), it was only a matter of time before I would wonder: “why the hell am I not reading de Sade?”. Reading a book by de Sade had been on my bucket list for a good six or seven years. (It didn’t help that I was partially turned off by de Sade after watching Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) due to the film’s shocking depictions of cruelty and grossness that the Jess Franco films rarely reached). 

Well, I finally read my first de Sade novel, recently, titled Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and it was all kinds of fucked up. It was cruel, disgusting, evil, sickeningly disagreeable… And I could hardly put it down. I won’t go as far as to call it a horror novel, but a lot of the sadists poor Justine encounters are outright terrifying, especially the head-cutter character. De Sade seemed to pull no punches. He morally outraged to the extreme and probably intended to.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (1970)

Halloween always gets me in the mood for the classic Universal monsters, so I thought I would revisit a Spanish monster mash-up (done in the vein of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)) that I had not seen in over ten years.

Assignment Terror is one of the Paul Naschy films I revisited the least for some reason. Naschy wrote and starred in it, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking it needed a little more Naschy. Paul Naschy’s scripts usually come off as real personal projects, but, even with the presence of the Universal monsters that inspired Naschy’s childhood love for horror, I didn’t quite feel that as much with Assignment Terror. But to be fair, it is quite early in Naschy’s filmography. Plus, I can see how Naschy might’ve thought it best to have his tragic lycanthrope character Waldemar Daninsky step aside a little to make room for the other classic monsters. In the end, it still ends up being Naschy’s show and what I think is an alright old-school monster movie that has got a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole thing is of course messy and flawed but also kind of whacky and fun.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Macumba Sexual (1983)

For me, going back to Macumba Sexual is going back to my Jess Franco origins, as it was the second Jess Franco film I ever saw, the first being Mansion of the Living Dead (1982). I came across both Severin DVDs of these films at a video store in 2007 and took a chance with Mansion first even though I was expecting it to be terrible (I had heard of Jess Franco and a not so revered zombie movie by the name of Oasis of the Zombies (1982)). At the time, I was desperate for something new, and I was sort of fascinated by the cheap looking blind dead Templar rip-offs on the DVD cover (Diet Tombs of the Blind Dead?). My expectations were low, but it turned out to be a funny, sexy, ultra-weird, and surprisingly atmospheric horror movie with a captivating lead actress, Lina Romay (born Rosa Maria Almirall). I shortly went back to the store for Macumba Sexual and, despite some frustrations, have been hooked on Jess Franco ever since (thanks Severin!).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Evil Eye / Malocchio (1975)

Evil Eye is that kind of movie that gracefully tries to do it all but ends up not really knowing what to do with itself afterwards. When looking at the film as a whole, it feels like a nice recap of the enduring motifs of the giallo, occult, gothic horror, and erotica film, and for that it will surely find a place in the hearts of Eurocult fans (it certainly has for me), but it’s hard to tell if it is a work of genius, a mistake of a masterpiece, or just an empty, routine cash-in. Is it great or not-great? I honestly have referred to it as both.
The Spanish, Italian, Mexican co-production Evil Eye (aka Mal de ojo in Spain, Malocchio and Eroticofollia in Italy, and Más allá del exorcismo in Mexico) is directed and co-written by Mario Siciliano. It was also co-written by Spanish writers Julio Buchs and Federico De Urrutia. Interestingly, Buchs and De Urrutia have several co-writing credits together, such as Alta tension (1972) and A Bullet for Sandoval (1969), many of which Buchs directed. Evil Eye seems to be the very last film either writer worked on. Julio Buchs died in 1973 before the film was released.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Sex of Angels / Il sesso degli angeli (1968)

This wicked looking poster for the nominally X-rated Italian/German drama The Sex of Angels and the Google plot synopsis, which reads “young women steal a yacht and kidnap a young man and spend a weekend having sex and doing drugs,” really aren’t all that misleading, although there’s a lot more to the story. The poster also exaggerates the situation, as what is depicted is rather the result of a conundrum brought on by irresponsibility followed by an even more irresponsible course of action. 

The setup to The Sex of Angels is, of course, an appealing one to the male fancy. Being seized by three beautiful modern-day angels and taken on a boat ride into the endless summer of ’68? Why not? It sounds like a good time, and for the most part it is, but in trying to postulate what the film might be trying to say with its outcome, I can’t help but put it in the context of ‘60s youth counter culture and the sexual revolution and see it as a cautionary tale of seduction and widespread use of LSD and what I thought was a kind of critical impression of the behaviors of the “sexually liberated.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Alice or the Last Escapade / Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977)

I’ve been a fan of Alice in Wonderland since I was a kid, although I didn’t read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books until I was an adult, which was prompted by my first viewing of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988), and ever since reading them I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about keeping an eye out for films inspired by or adapted from the books, which was what attracted me to the French surrealist film Alice or the Last Escapade in the first place. I thought the film did a pretty good job at creating an interesting new take on Alice in Wonderland (without actually being about Alice in Wonderland) while also being a bit derivative and having an ending that viewers will no doubt have seen before that I still thought was beautifully executed. It’s also very much of the ‘70s Eurocult sensibility and a product of its time, but it feels like there’s also a little something here for everyone, including the curious Alice in wonderland fan (who doesn’t mind a lightly inspired non-adaptation), and even the surreal, the arthouse, or even the gothic horror fan.

Friday, December 21, 2018

House of the Damned / La loba y la Paloma (1974)

House of the Damned is that generically titled, sort of misleading, pleasant delight that reminds me of why I still enjoy exploring near-forgotten Eurocult films from decades past with the word “House” in their titles. It’s far from the traditional haunted house horror and is more of a peculiar seaside murder drama that still hits a lot of the right notes for Spanish horror fans. The translation of the Spanish title is something like The She Wolf and the Dove, which I think is referring to Sandra and Maria (played by Carmen Sevilla and Muriel Catalá), the two main female characters who are also featured on the different regional title posters.
Which one of them is supposed to be the wolf and which one is the dove?
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