I can’t think of a director as committed to the work of the Marquis DeSade as Jess Franco, who dipped into the disreputable well of the Divine Marquis’ work time and again during his lenghty career. His first direct adaptation – arguably his most direct adaptation – was 1969’s Justine, a rather disappointing costume drama in which the titular heroine suffers the misfortunes of virtue while her sister Juliette is richly rewarded for her wickedness. Thankfully subsequent films did a much better job of capturing the spirit of Sade, selecting scenarios and themes from across the author’s oeuvre and transposing them to the modern day. A perfect example of this is Eugenie … the story of her journey into perversion (1969), a film remade – or perhaps reimagined – some years later as Erotismo (1981).
“I have a sickness called Eugenie.”
Alberto de Rosa (Antonio Mayans) is obsessed with Eugenie (Katja Bienert), a young woman he sees in and around his apartment building, sashaying its walkways, climbing its angular staircases and bathing in its rooftop pool. He enlists the help of his sister Alba (Mabel Escano), who uses her feminine wiles to seduce the girl’s father and convince him to handover his only daughter. Together they travel to an isolated house to satisfy their carnal desires . . .
Erotismo, or The Wicked Memoirs of Eugenie, is another example of Franco’s ability to conjure something out of next to nothing, to take a small cast, a simple set-up and draw the audience into a netherworld through his manipulation of time and space. The first half hour, for instance, features numerous scenes of our sinister siblings spying on the nubile Eugenie, and on paper, very little happens. The viewer is barely able to look away though. We come to understand Alberto’s obsession during these scenes, we literally see the world through his eyes, and become complicit in so doing.
This emphasis on voyeurism – we repeatedly see the predators looking on through binoculars, aroused by the sights they see – recalls Plaisir a Trois (1973), as does the subplot of a convalescent woman being manipulated by the man she loves. As we said at the outset, Franco is more inclined to take ideas from Sade and transpose them, reshape and reconfigure them, than to adapt a text in its entirety. Erotismo draws primarily from Philosophy in the Bedroom though, and its principal concern is thus the sexual initiation of an ingenue.
“Everything is allowed to people like us. There are no limits that cannot be exceeded.”
While there are things to admire about the first half of the film, the second – which details the corruption of the Eugenie and subsequent breakdown of the incestuous alliance – is at times mesmerising. Indeed the ravishment itself – a remarkable ten-minute sequence the film spends an hour building up to – is among the high points of Franco’s entire filmography, a surreal montage of eyes, lips, teeth; fingers on a fretboard, probing pubic hair, accompanied by stream of consciousness narration from the drugged subject.
It’s just one example – the most obvious example – of the unusual care taken with the visual aspects of the film. Elsewhere mirrored walls intensify the spectacle of key scenes, optical filters lend proceedings a dreamlike air and ambient light forms ghostly shapes as it bursts from outside to in. More broadly, the film benefits from some stunning locations and design choices. Eugenie’s world is one of sun-drenched coastlines and cubist architecture, of surreal figures formed of sand, unlikely monuments to the dead.
There are areas in which it doesn’t compare well to previous interpretations though. The main theme, for instance, is too jaunty for the scandalous scenario it accompanies, and our Sadean siblings are neither as seductive as Maria Rohm and Jack Taylor, nor as sinister as Soledad Miranda and Paul Muller. Part of the problem maybe that Franco forgoes Sade’s dialogues here – his philosophical underpinnings – which leaves the pair looking more like sociopaths than libertines.
Of course, the real story with regards to the cast – the elephant in the room and the reason we will probably never see a restored release of this key Franco film – is the participation of Katja Bienert. Born in 1966, she was a minor at the time of shooting, so while the film is not especially explicit – the precedent here is Brooke Shields rather than Traci Lords – it would be difficult to distribute in the U.K. today, and likely also in the U.S. It’s a real shame, because we will probably never see films like this again.
“We, the blind, can see many things that you, with eyes, cannot.”
Erotismo was produced by Julian Esteban’s JE Films, and watching it now almost forty years later, one is struck by how strange it is: a sex film which begins and (almost) ends with shots of figures formed of sand, which is rather quiet and still for much of its duration, despite its explosive subject matter. It was released theatrically in Spain and Germany at the time, presumably to bemused patrons of long-forgotten, disreputable theatres. Of course, this is one of the reasons directors like Franco chose to make exploitation films: if you delivered the goods in terms of onscreen nudity you were largely left to your own devices. Well, it’s either that or somebody thought there was an appetite for surreal, sadistic, Spanish sex films in the early eighties.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:
The ‘cubist architecture’ is the work of Ricardo Bofill. The striking red apartment building we see during the first half of the film is La Muralla Roja, which we can also see in La Comtesse Perverse. The house the group occupy thereafter is Xanadu, which is also used in La Comtesse Perverse and, memorably, She Killed in Ecstasy.
The references to Maria Rohm and Jack Taylor, Soledad Miranda and Paul Muller are effectively references to Eugenie . . . the story of her journey into perversion (1969) and Eugenie / DeSade 2000 (1970).
The casting of Fraulein Bienert is problematic, not least because it makes the film a risky proposition for anyone who may be inclined to release it today. The British censor has objected to two Franco films featuring nude shots of a teenaged Susan Hemingway in recent years, specifically Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun and Women in Cellblock 9, and I’ve no doubt they would have similar problems with Erotismo. That said, The Blue Lagoon – a film which played on U.K. tv in the eighties but which I had assumed would be verboten today – is freely available on blu ray in the U.K. As for the aforementioned Franco / Dietrich productions, they remain in print in Germany and the US, so perhaps there is some hope.
Obsession – the Films of Jess Franco, Balbo, Blumenstock and Kessler (Haufen & Trebbin, 1993)
Bizarre Sinema!, by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, 1999)
The Films of Jess Franco, by Lazaro-Reboll, Olney et al. (Wayne State University Press, 2018)
Flowers of Perversion, Stephen Thrower (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)