Eugenie De Sade is a softcore product, a personal statement, and a masterpiece.
I haven’t seen most of Jess Franco’s films and never will. He’s got more than 180 listed on IMDB. And like many people, I’ve often had the feeling that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen . . . perhaps not them all, but at least a couple dozen. His movies are often variations on the same themes, with the same actors, shot in the same languid style as the camera drifts around, now zooming in, now out, as though we’re all trapped in the same enervating dream as the music sighs and trembles for us.
Many of us were aware of his movies back in the days of VHS, but those copies were dark, butchered, dubbed, and pan-and-scanned. It took Tim Lucas to make a serious case for Franco the auteur, first in his Video Watchdog magazine and now in his Video Watchblog. Lucas’ point has been gaining ground in the DVD era as pristine versions of Franco’s output arrive. Lucas wrote that the more Franco you see, you more you appreciate him, that there comes a point when, instead of feeling you’re seeing the same movie over and over, you come to realize what sets each apart in the grand serial of his career.
Well, it’s taken a long time for this 1970 classic to emerge (it’s a 1984 re-release with the onscreen title Eugenia), and I don’t believe it’s necessary to have any familiarity with Franco to recognize a live wire to the id.
The picture opens with Eugenie (Soledad Miranda) near death in a hospital bed. Miranda was a beautiful young Spanish actress with Gypsy blood, as Franco says in a bonus interview, who starred in many of his early films before she died in a car crash. Here, she’s brilliant and hypnotizing in an extremely difficult role: evil, innocent, horrible, vulnerable, possessed and possessing, ultimately a tragic puppet, a child led willingly astray through her own capacity for love.
So there she is in the hospital, with these unconvincing smears of blood applied decoratively to her face. Is this a bad make-up job? No, for later in the film, we’ll see a prostitute carefully applying phony blood to her face in those same patterns for a bondage fantasy, and the image will resonate. In the beginning of the film, the falseness of the make-up and the fact of acting, with its problematic blurring between pretending and becoming, is already introduced.
Eugenie’s visitor at her bedside is a novelist named Attila Tanner. He’s played by Franco in an incarnation of himself, someone interested in transgressive behavior for anthropo-artistic reasons, but not himself a dabbler. (Franco often appears uncredited in his films, usually as some kind of sweaty, wizened old pervert.) As we will see, he’s been a recurring figure in the careers of Eugenie and her step-father, observing them with a laser eye, puncturing their pretensions. Now he’s back to lift the final veil, and Eugenie agrees to tell him the whole story on the condition that he’ll kill her afterwards. He promises.
With this startling introduction, the flashback begins. Eugenie recounts how her incestuous stepdad (Paul Muller), a famous writer, introduces her to the joys of killing whores and hitchhikers. It all has to do with the sadistic pleasures of power and “perfect crimes”, and everything goes swimmingly until she falls in love with a young trumpeter who’s marked as her next victim. The single word, “stepfather”, is important because it’s the only concession Franco had to make, according to him, in filming this story in 1970; in the Marquis De Sade’s story of Eugenie, she’s corrupted by her father.
Here’s an example of the difference between mere exploitation and serious exploration. We see the first of these “perfect crimes”, which involves the aforementioned display of phony make-up in a sequence where the prostitute’s pretense gradually shades into reality. This is obviously a charged scene, and then we see the first incident with a doomed hitchhiker. We observe the details of these procedures in Franco’s unblinking, clinical yet feverish style, generating great intensity for the death-orgasmic “moment of truth” that washes over the willing and unwilling participants.
Now that we understand something of it, the camera looks out over a frozen lake as Eugenie mentions that they disposed of the corpse there, and also eight others, male and female. A mere exploitation film would have devoted its time to repeating the procedure with other victims, because that would be its true function. Franco’s choice of reducing the rest of the spree to the shot of a beautiful icy lake underlines forces deep and chilling.
In the interview, Franco (who grew up in the Catholic and totalitarian Spain of that other Franco) says he discovered the forbidden writings of Sade as a teenager and it greatly affected his art. Yes, he’s made many Sade films, and this title might be confused with another of his films from the same year, Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey into Perversion, which I once called “a groovy mix of the decadent and laughable.” The element of the trumpet player (another personal element, as Franco played trumpet) connects to Venus in Furs (1969).
Many connections can be drawn with Franco’s personal world and the wider world of other Sade films, if one cares to. For example, Blue Underground has also released a film by Claude Pierson, Justine deSade (1972), starring Alice Arno, who also appears in Eugenie and it’s a surprisingly good and straightforward period film in the manner of French literary adaptations, perhaps a more satisfying movie than Franco’s own Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969), a static all-star affair with Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge and Klaus Kinski.
Yet I repeat: none of this is necessary. If you see only one Franco film, or only one Sade film, you can’t go wrong with this one, and here’s why. Most exploitation films play at being “shocking” and “liberated” but it’s a scam, at least in tone. The shocks are well-worn, formulaic, and carefully packaged, the kind of “shocks” a jaded audience expects and hopes for. The liberation is usually given a conservative, reactionary moral, partly for reasons of appealing to censors and partly just to reinforce middle-brow values.
People who are living transgressively don’t go to the movies to look at transgression; rather, the audience is composed of those who feel they are missing something and want to taste it while being told they’re really missing nothing, that their lives are fine with their jobs and their toothpaste. So, transgressors must be punished. After experiencing our vicarious thrills, we’re satisfied at the comeuppance. All seems right with the world, no real tragedies exist, nothing has really been discovered by anyone.
But Franco’s film is genuinely disturbing, and its analysis of the moral and intellectual traps of transgression seems grounded in human relationships. Franco doesn’t come across as a moralist but as an analyst devoid of glee, one whose moral distance from the story, neither endorsing nor condemning, leaves us in freefall, and each turn in the descent feels increasingly queasy and claustrophobic. Perhaps we came to spy on evil for laughs and thrills, but instead we seem to understand it and even to recognize why it is evil, and it feels like a blank trapdoor in the soul. It’s the quiet jolt of a film going beyond exploitation into art.
And how beautifully shot it is! There are absolutely gorgeous scenes in this gorgeous print, from shots of Miranda crouched in her velvet chair to a nearly abstract composition of silhouettes having a discussion while trapped in the shadows of modern architecture.
Franco’s Cecilia (1982), released by Blue Underground on the same date as Eugenie, sleekly follows the Emmanuelle template of a wife who tells her husband she wants to experience an open marriage for a healthier relationship (rather than being persuaded by the husband), but it comes a cropper because of the unwelcome emotions of love and restless dissatisfaction, not to mention that unfortunate rape incident, so that she finally accepts traditional marriage and fidelity.
Again, though, the moralistic wrap-up seems less a function of the requisite hypocrisy of exploitation than of Franco’s insightful observation on the untenability of utopian ideals due to human weakness and the dullness of hedonism. During an orgy, Franco focuses intently on the aging voyeur as hunger and boredom cross his face, and the partiers are deliberately made up to look absurd. This hardly seems to be what the exploited viewer would want, yet this is a solidly stylish softcore outing with astonishing production values, shot in Portugal in a public park that used to be the estate of Captain James Cook.
All this is evidence of Franco the serious filmmaker toiling in the fields of Eurotrash, but whether one has any acquaintance with him or this genre, Eugenie De Sade is a startling achievement.