The films Franco directed for Erwin Dietrich tend to feel quite different to those that came before and after, more considered somehow, perhaps less exciting as a result. Das Frauenhaus (1977) – or Blue Rita as it’s more typically known today – has much in common with the director’s work to this point, given the action centres on a nightclub, the female characters take centre stage – literally and figuratively – and the realisation of particular scenes seems to take precedence over the coherence of the whole. The execution reveals it to be part of the Dietrich set though, albeit there is a suggestion this was actually a coproduction with Robert De Nesle.

“My name is Rita. My friends call me Blue Rita.”

Sharing her name with the club of which she is proprietor, ‘Blue Rita’ (Martine Flety) uses her exotic, dancing girls to lure men of means into her orbit, to drug and imprison them, to torment them with aphrodisiac gas and goo. She may have bitten off more than she can chew though, when she sets her sights on a champion boxer . . .

Enticing as its premise sounds, there is a sense of referencing rather than recapturing former glories to Blue Rita, almost of going through the motions. For instance, there are a handful of scenes which recall earlier, more memorable movies without ever quite living up to them. The first of the performance pieces – which one might expect to find the director at his most inspired – is an obvious example, calling to mind the famous sequence in Vampyros Lesbos (1970) in which Soledad Miranda shares a stage with and breathes life into a mannequin. Here ’Princessa’ (Sarah Strasberg) – Rita’s medic, chemist, accomplice – shares a stage with a silver-skimmed, similarly fleshy mannequin whose nether-regions are adorned with the head of an elephant. Her act consists of kissing and stroking its trunk – which sounds quite subversive put in those terms – but there’s little of the dynamism of the earlier film. The action is too static and thus not especially interesting to watch.

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Referring to general characteristics rather than specifics, the unevenness we finds in most of Franco’s cinema is evident here, albeit we neither scale the heights nor plumb the depths of some of the earlier work. There are both striking images and memorable scenes, notable among the former being the low angle shots of our titular protagonist – naked but for knee-high boots – standing over similarly naked, captive males, taunting and teasing them. Among the latter, the scene in which she completes the initiation of a new dancer – Sam (Dagmar Burger) – by making love with her is shot primarily through a fish tank, with focus drifting back and fourth between the brightly coloured fish in the foreground and the pale, human flesh beyond. It’s classic Franco, though whether or not it’s sufficient to sell the whole is debatable, given a number of very obvious weaknesses.

Blue Rita contains elements we find in innumerable Franco films but, taken as a whole, probably has more in common with The Girl from Rio (1969) than anything else. A mash-up of spy shenanigans, sixties stylings and silliness from the Towers set, it features Shirley Eaton as a girl boss trying to take over the world with an mini-skirted army, and as such shares tonal, thematic and genre elements with the film at hand. I think the problem is – admittedly it’s many years since I’ve seen it – The Girl from Rio knew what it wanted to be and I’m not sure Blue Rita does. For the overwhelming majority of its running time it’s a rather camp tale of women imprisoning men and exploiting their desires, but does an about turn in the last ten minutes or so, transforming into a spy caper before our eyes. Not only is this rather curious – it almost suggests filming started without a clear endpoint in mind, which admittedly wouldn’t have been a first for Franco – its very poorly executed. A deluge of exposition accompanies the escape of one of the prisoners (Eric Falk), revealing key characters are not what they seem and leaving audiences struggling to keep track of who is who, who is in cahoots with who and who is double-crossing who. How much any of this matters will vary from viewer to viewer but it’s hard to deny it borders on inept.    

Going back to the scenes of women abducting and imprisoning men, we should remember that Franco and Dietrich were having great success with Women in Prison films during this period, and it’s half-tempting to view these aspects as an inversion of that template. The two are worlds apart in terms of both tone and (I would guess) intent though. There is none of the nihilism we find in Franco’s ‘WIP’ films here, and none of the violence against bodies. It’s also worth pointing out that, while she apparently hates men, Rita is as much a capitalist as a sadist, at least as far as we can tell.    

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For all its failings – for not quite measuring up to the films it evokes, for its inherent absurdity and occasional ineptness – Blue Rita is quite watchable and its trump card is its aesthetic. At its best it resembles an adult comic come to life, with its coloured lighting, futuristic fittings and fetishistic footwear. The cinematography of Rudolf Kuttel is shiny and bright, with Flety and Burger in particular rendered beautifully in some tight, head shots. More broadly, Pamela Stanford looks great in a silver catsuit, as does Vicky Mesmin in her billowing blue cloak, and where else are you going to see a blonde in a gas mask making love to a chained male in a golden cage? 

“You and your troop of lesbians were useful to us for a while.”

Ultimately Blue Rita is something of a mixed bag, like many of the films we’ve discussed. In its defence, it ‘feels’ more like a Franco film than, say, Jack the Ripper or Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (both 1976), at least to me. That only gets us so far though, and while it’s nice to be back in Paris, to spend time with Pamela Stanford, in nightclubs, listening to jazz, it’s all rather pale in comparison to what had gone before. There’s nothing here as audacious as the opening of Eugenie (1970) or as edgy as the opening of Exorcism (1974). It’s also really quite flawed in terms of storytelling. In the end, I’m tempted to say it’s a good example of a Franco film without necessarily being one. 

 

WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:

Stephen Thrower’s excellent Flowers of Perversion asserts that this was actually a coproduction between Dietrich and De Nesle, though there’s nothing on the credits to indicate that. I suppose it might explain the film being shot in Paris though, perhaps also the presence of Pamela Stanford and Guy Delorme.

The first sex scene recalls another of the director’s celebrated collaborations with Miranda, specifically She Killed in Ecstasy (also 1970), with its use transparent, inflatable furniture. It’s purely decorative this time around though, with none of the drama that concluded Miranda and (Ewa) Stromberg. 

Exploitation films are often uneven and orientated around set-pieces, but this is especially true of Franco’s.

The IMDB cites Franco as the screenwriter, though I don’t think the print under review contains any specific credits to this end.

Bibliography:

Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill (Primitive Press, 1994)

Bizarre Sinema!, by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, 1999)

Flowers of Perversion, by Stephen Thrower (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)