Spain/West Germany: Jess Franco, 1970
Back in 2003, I happened to see a film by a Spanish director by the name of Jesus “Jess” Franco. The film in question was Justine, and I’m sorry to say I thought it was so bad that I didn’t make it beyond the opening half-hour. This was when my Euro-cult craze was still in its infancy (the only such films I’d seen were around a third of Dario Argento’s catalogue), and I realise that Franco has a rather formidable following among such circles. Therefore, recently, when I was doing a little borrowing and trading with other Euro-cult fanatics, I decided to give Franco another go, with his 1970 film Eugenie.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Eugenie and Justine are pretty similar films. In addition to sharing a director, a writer/producer (Harry Alan Towers) and a composer (Bruno Nicolai, he of so many gialli), they are both based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade and have a similar narrative theme of an innocent young woman embarking on a series of sexual adventures, many of them sadomasochistic. As such, Eugenie is somewhere between a character drama and an exploitation/porn hybrid, although the fact that it takes itself seriously and places no small amount of emphasis on the narrative means that, as one reviewer put it, it’s as far from a Skinemax flick as you can possibly get.
Be of no doubt, though, that this is far from a classic. Not much of note really happens, and the whole thing seems to come to an abrupt end long before it should. Franco’s attempts to blend fantasy with reality are also not particularly successful, and, to be honest, there’s only so much canoodling and breast-fondling I can take before I start looking for something more substantial. And yet, Eugenie’s technical qualities set it apart from most films of this sort. Franco had a decent (at least by his standards) budget with this film, and you can tell that every penny ended up on the screen. Shot in anamorphic Technovision, it consistently looks sumptuous, making excellent use of the picturesque island location and, in the more hallucinatory sequences, various dye filters. And the final moments, which show the naked, degraded Eugenie stumbling through sand dunes and along deserted country roads, are haunting in their sheer beauty. Unfortunately, a number of scenes are sullied by being so out of focus that I’m amazed Franco never re-shot them.
The film also has an interesting cast, headed by Marie Liljedahl as the young Eugenie who, while not exactly a first-class thespian, is game for anything and handles the character’s innocence well. Her transition from innocent wallflower to sullied damsel never really convinced me, though, as she does little to show any sort of change in her character. The sultry Maria Rohm is also on fine form, and the sheer shock of seeing Christopher Lee in such a dirty picture is well worth the price of admission. (Apparently, he had no idea what sort of film he was appearing in until he saw the final cut, but, looking at the scenes in which he appears, I’m not entirely convinced by this claim.)
In the final analysis, therefore, Franco is a better filmmaker than I previously assumed him to be. The subject matter isn’t really to my liking, but here he clearly demonstrates a decent ability behind the camera if given an appropriate budget. For all its faults, I’m not sorry to have watched it, and I’ll be less hasty to avoid this director’s output in the future.