Franco was notorious for shooting back-to-back in his heyday, sometimes even simultaneously, and sometimes without the knowledge of those paying his bills. The most frequently cited example of this is Women Behind Bars, which appears to have been shot alongside Barbed Wire Dolls (both 1975) and thus funded unwittingly by Erwin C. Dietrich. Whatever we make of this practice – whether we consider it to be morally dubious, ingenious or evidence of his compulsion to keep filming – it goes some way towards explaining the director’s vast filmography. It may also provide an insight into the unevenness of many of the films, which can oscillate between scenes of obvious inspiration and apparent indifference, as though his mind was elsewhere. Either way, this practice of shooting on a very small scale, of working from a bare outline and shooting with whoever happened to be around, sometimes bore remarkable fruit.
“This picture of blossoming youth will crumble.”
Lady Doriana Gray (Lina Romay) lives a life of relative seclusion, alone but for her mute man-servant Ziros (Ramon Ardid). A visit from an American journalist (Monica Swinn) brings to light the presence of a sister, a Siamese-twin sister from whom she was separated at birth. Sadly the operation came at a price, and the nameless sister is now confined to an institution, psychically still tethered to her sister and condemned to feel the sexual sensations which Doriana – despite her craving desires – cannot.
Laying out the film’s premise like this, it occurs to me that a first-time viewer might expect a romp in which a horny heroine explores every avenue in order to scratch her sexual itch, and Das Bildnis der Doriana Gray (1975) is nothing of the sort. In fact, what we have here is a languidly-paced, rather artistically-shot tragedy with elements of horror and hardcore sex thrown in – a very strange brew.
In narrative terms, the film actually resembles the director’s own Female Vampire (1973) as much as the Wilde story from which it takes its name. There is talk of the sister’s beauty being more lasting than Doriana’s – making her a very physical equivalent of the portrait in the attic – although it’s never made clear why that would be. Actually the fate of Lady Gray is much closer to that of Irina Karlstein’s, in that she is compelled to take sexual partners and to kill them in so doing. Like much of the director’s best work, this is more about mood than message though, with Dietrich himself commenting that the actual content is largely inconsequential.
Doriana Gray – or Die Marquisse Von Sade, as it’s also known – was shot primarily in the South of France towards the beginning of Franco’s association with Dietrich, and the aesthetic differences between it and, say, the aforementioned Barbed Wire Dolls are striking from the outset. Franco’s cinematography is far more considered here, indeed the film is frequently beautiful to behold. Focus is manipulated for effect this time around, to the point that the kiss between the journalist and Ms Gray begins to resemble Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name. Ambient light leaves characters partially silhouetted in front of enormous windows, with a rainbow arcing across the sky in one particularly striking shot. Mirrors are also used throughout, providing frames within frames, leaving us gazing at reflections of reflections. The cumulative effect is at times astonishing.
The film’s principal location – the Villa Kerylos, just outside of Nice – also contributes significantly to the atmosphere. It’s a remarkable space modelled on the villas of Ancient Greece, quite unlike a functioning, twentieth century home. Doriana’s world is one of marble floors, mosaics and sunken baths, a coastal palace out of time which only serves to emphasise her isolation and otherness.
“You radiate the charm of youth and the melancholy of experience.”
Franco’s decision to shoot hardcore sex scenes presented Dietrich with a distribution problem at the time and will remain a barrier for some viewers to this day. His work had become increasingly explicit through the first half of the seventies, so this might have been a natural progression from the likes of Plaisir a Trois, La Comtesse Perverse and the aforementioned Female Vampire / La Comtesse Noir (all 1973). Of course, the mid-seventies was also the era of ‘porno-chic’, and Franco would have been aware of the success of films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door (both 1972) in the US, not to mention Le Sexe Qui Parle (1975) in France.
Whatever the rationale, the sex scenes herein resembe the director’s previous work more than contemporary hardcore, with tender flesh rendered indistinct through extreme close-ups, with obsessive zooms in the nether regions of the female. A number of the encounters are also distinctly carnivorous, pornographically vampiric, in particular two pivotal scenes which occur around the halfway point. In the first, Ziros holds down his beautiful, screaming girlfriend (Martine Stedil) as Doriana gnaws at her genitals, and in the second, he is extinguished in similar fashion, seemingly fellated to death by his mistress. These are powerful scenes, not for the faint hearted, with the former particularly frenzied.
“It’s the destiny of all beauty to be destroyed.”
As we said at the outset, this is more an exercise is style than storytelling. I do need to acknowledge some narrative shortcomings though. For instance, the transference of Doriana’s feelings to her sister is never really explored, and perhaps more problematic, neither is the means by which she kills her partners / victims. None of this really impacts my enjoyment of the film – we are deep in the realms of the fantastique here – but there are also structural problems as it progresses.
The sex scenes really pile up in the final third, at the expense of the more contemplative scenes which contribute considerably to the first hour. The eventual coming together of the sisters – pun very much intended – is also a bit of a let down, and there are some jarring ‘meat’ shots during the one scene of heterosexual intercourse which look for all the world like inserts and serve only to break the spell of doomed eroticism. The film also ends very abruptly, a frequent Franco failing, especially during this period.
I’ve said before that I’m not really a fan of the films Franco made with Dietrich, feeling the directorial signature was weekend by the scripts and / or crews assembled by the producer. That’s not an issue here though, given the spontaneous nature of the shoot. A review on the IMDB described the film as like watching pornography in slow motion while stoned, which is actually a pretty good description. It’s a genuinely haunting example of the erotic horror sub-genre, unmistakably Franco, could only be Franco, thank God for Franco.
Credit must also go to Romay for the way she commits to the dual roles of Doriana and her similarly doomed sister. It’s hard to imagine another actress then or now giving so much of herself, particularly to the latter role, writhing around wide-eyed, positively convulsing, pulling at her sex.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:
Franco was actually slated to direct a version of Wilde’s novel during his association with Harry Alan Towers. The film was ultimately directed by Massimo Dallamano, with Helmut Berger playing the lead.
Dietrich’s thoughts on the film can be heard during an interview on the Ascot Elite Blu-ray release from 2013. I believe the interview was actually conducted about ten years earlier, around the time of the first DVD release.
Dietrich prepared a soft cut of Doriana Gray, apparently shooting footage himself to replace that which was excised. It’s not a version I would recommend though, even to those who might be squeamish about the hardcore. Dietrich’s work stands out like a sore thumb, with Romay wearing an unconvincing wig and occupying locations that are clearly at odds with the surrounding footage.
The sequence in which Romay performs cunnilingus on Stedil ends with liquid dripping from her mouth, which is the kind of thing we might expect at the conclusion of a heterosexual oral scene and might give us a clue as to how Doriana is killing her victims, draining their essence as her predecessor Countess Irina Karlstein did in Female Vampire. The effect is echoed during the scene is which she fellates Ardid – her husband at the time – and which provides the films only ‘pop shot’.
Stephen Thrower’s enormous Flowers of Perversion (Strange Attractor Press, 2018) was helpful in situating the film in Franco’s labyrinthine filmography and revealing its shooting location(s).