The essays I’ve written to date have identified a number of figures who have been important to Franco’s cinema, from producers like Harry Alan Towers and Robert De Nesle to actors like Howard Vernon and Soledad Miranda. It’s obviously difficult to quantify the lasting impact these have had, though its difficult to even imagine Franco’s cinema without Vernon. I’m tempted to say that none have been as important as Lina Romay though.
Born Rosa Marie Allmiral on the 25th of June 1954, Romay – as she was later rebranded by the director – came into Franco’s orbit as a result of her husband Ramón Ardid having served as photographer on a number of the Towers productions. Seemingly a natural exhibitionist and thus perfect for Franco, her first onscreen appearance came in Los Ojos Siniestros dos Doctor Orloff (1973), with her first significant role coming the same year, as the simple-minded maid / slave in Plaisir a Trois.
Martine and Charles de Bressac – Alice Arno and Robert Woods, respectively – are a libertine couple intent on the seduction and destruction of a diplomat’s daughter. We first encounter the former as she is discharged from a psychiatric institution, and although we never learn exactly why she was there, the opening sequence concludes with a flashback of her attacking an unidentified, naked male with a straight razor. Once home she makes her way to their macabre basement ‘museum’, which is adorned with the embalmed bodies of past victims, before having her chauffeur go cruising for prostitutes and picking up where she left off . . .
I remember reading about Plaisir a Trois in the mid-nineties and imagining it to be peak Franco, with it’s themes of corruption, sadism and voyeurism. In reality it’s probably better described as thematically representative of the director’s work – at least during this period – because most of those themes are presented more compellingly elsewhere. For example, Maria Rohm and Jack Taylor are far more sinister in Eugenie . . . The Story of her Journey into Perversion (1969) than their analogues Arno and Woods here, and the appearance of a mannequin during the lengthy red-lit scene at the heart of the film only serves to emphasise the gaping hole left by Soledad Miranda’s untimely death.
The voyeurism is worthy of a little more discussion though, because while it had been implicit in the director’s work since at least the black and white thrillers – think of all the nightclub acts, the stripteases, the captivated audiences – it had never been quite as prominent as it is here. Martine and Charles love to watch, it excites them, and we see them early on using binoculars to spy on Cecile – the diplomat’s daughter, played by Tania Busselier – initiating their own lovemaking in the process.
Franco referred to himself as a voyeur on more than one occasion, which one might have inferred from his cinema anyway. Perhaps more interesting here is the connection the act of watching makes between the protagonists and the audience, many of whom will have bought tickets in order to gaze upon the very same, naked flesh. Indeed there is a scene during which Charles chastises the couple’s deformed butler (yes, our Sadean anti-heroes have a simple-minded maid / sex slave and a deformed, dwarf butler) for spying on Martine and Cecile in the bath, only to take his place at the window, staring into the camera and implicating the audience in so doing.
We shouldn’t get too carried away with the idea that our protagonists are somehow surrogates for the audience though. They’re mentally ill – sadists and murderers – and this manifests itself in what they say as well as what they do. Martine’s dialogue is particularly illustrative in this regard, as she refers (while spying) to punishing Cecile for what she’s doing to her. Sadly, this is never really followed through, so we’re left to speculate as to whether she feels taunted, whether her arousal causes her to feel shame or whether the sexuality of another woman is an affront to her for some other reason.
“Middle class morality, completely out of date.”
I’m in danger of making the film sound more interesting than it is. There is an argument that Franco’s films became less interesting as they became more sexually explicit, as censorship relaxed at the beginning of the seventies. This may or may not be true in the general case, but Plaisir a Trois feels like a (soft) porn film in a way that its predecessors generally do not not. For a start, the sex scenes – which are obviously narratively significant – are long, dull and seriously try the patience. The sight of the hirsute Ms Busselier masturbating for minutes on end really is not that engaging, and adding Lina to the mix later on does little to alleviate the boredom.
There are also narrative turns that would not be out of place in a bad porn film, such as the ease with which the diplomat entrusts his daughter to the care of our libertines. We learn later on that Charles and Cecile were already acquainted – which explains her enthusiasm – but the parents’ willingness to hand over custody of their only child is not entirely convincing. It’s also not at all clear how approaching Martine’s psychiatrist furthers Charles’ ultimate plan.
That said, Franco would go on to make some insufferable soft core in the years to follow, and Plaisir a Trois certainly has more going for it than some of the Dietrich productions. Frano’s is the cinema of images and ideas, and these are clearly his images and ideas. The film is competently directed and photographed – in fact it’s rather well photographed. The locations are well chosen – it is a Franco film – particularly the spectacular Bressac mansion which houses the aforementioned museum. It just feels rather slight, we’ve seen it all before, and lacks the transgressive quality of, say, Eugenie (1970) or the emotional weight of Sinner (1972).
Binoculars and voyeurism also feature in La Comtesse Perverse (1973), which can almost be seen as a companion piece, given the two films were shot back to back with largely the same cast and crew. Seemingly based on RKO’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932), our libertines this time around are Count and Countess Zaroff (Howard Vernon and Alice Arno, respectively), whose taste for tender flesh extends to cooking and eating it.
For me this is the more engaging of the two, with a greater sense of jeopardy over the fate of the victims and more intrigue as to their procurement. It begins with a young couple – Robert Woods and Tania Busselier, as Bob and Moira – looking out over the coast and noticing the body of a woman – Kali Hansa – seemingly washed ashore. Taking her back to their villa, she rants about an island, about a couple, not realising that she has been rescued by the very people tasked with obtaining fresh meat for the cannibals from whom she has fled.
“He’s a fascinating man. I can see why you’re in love with him.”
While affording the horror elements greater prominence here is to the film’s benefit, it’s greatest asset is arguably the stunning landscapes and architecture of the Alicante coast, which we get a good look at early on. The Kali Hansa character – I don’t think she is ever given a name – recounts her trip to and arrival on the island in a scene which is far too long by ‘normal’ standards and in which one could argue nothing really happens. It’s important in establishing the space in which the story will unfold though – cruel, foreboding, isolated – and also establishes a dream-like atmosphere by disrupting our sense of the passage of time.
With regards to the architecture, the Count and Countess occupy Ricardo Bofil’s famous Xanadu building, which will be familiar to Franco aficionados from She Killed in Ecstasy (1970). Looking more like a cubist painting than a habitable space, the structure adds production value and a sense of strangeness to the piece, a sense that what we’re seeing shouldn’t exist.
Again, considerable credit must go to Gérard Brissau for the crystal clear cinematography, which is largely devoid of the eccentricities we normally associate with the director. Apparently the film was shot in less than two weeks, making the (generally) considered compositions and technical proficiency all the more impressive.
Just going back to the horror elements, I wouldn’t want to downplay the sexual aspects of the production, which is awash with crotch shots in the director’s cut. Apparently this was not enough for De Nesle though, who had Franco shoot more erotic footage after the event, and a framing story to lighten the overall mood.
On the subject of the producer, it’s worth remembering that these films tended to be scripted, scored and dubbed by his associates after shooting, with little or no involvement from Franco himself. If we want to look for positives, this enabled the director to shoot at a remarkable pace, apparently completing eleven films in 1973 alone. Music has always been central to his cinema though, and outsourcing it in this way is of significant detriment to the films. The forgettable themes here, for example, are a far cry from the contributions of Daniel White and Bruno Nicolai in years gone by. The film’s most significant problem is its final act though.
Clearly not burdened by conventional morality, our cannibalistic couple profess a sense of nobility which manifests itself in them releasing their prey into the wild, hunting them down with a bow and arrow. This should have afforded the film a tense climax, but instead we get six or seven minutes of the Count and Countess – the latter naked but for her jewellery – wandering around aimlessly, staring into the middle distance.
It’s curious that Franco lacked the skill or, more likely, the interest to handle this sequence more effectively. How hard would it have been to have Arno pursuing her prey – Romay – with urgency, catching fleeting glimpses of her, firing off arrows at her? As it is we have close ups of faces and crotches, we have frenzied bongo-playing, presumably a desperate attempt to inject some energy into proceedings.
I realise I haven’t said much about the performances thus far and that may be revealing in itself. These are (s)exploitation films shot quickly, cheaply and without direct sound, and the principals are fine in that context. The characters they play are really just archetypes, so we probably shouldn’t expect the cast to do more than embody them. Alice Arno has the physique and icy demeanour to convince as a sadist, though she lacks the screen presence of, say, the aforementioned Maria Rohm. Howard Vernon, who is somewhat wasted as the chauffeur in Plaisir a Trois, makes a more compelling male lead than Robert Woods, which we could probably have predicted. Really, the only time I was particularly aware of the acting was while watching the ‘Sexy Nature’ cut of La Comtesse Perverse, when Lina’s gift for playful, comedic roles manifested itself.
Lina would appear in more than a hundred Franco films between 1973 and 2012, yet it’s arguably her first starring role that’s defining, that leaves the most lasting impression. La Comtesse Noire (1973) – or Female Vampire, as it’s better known today – is the story of Irina Karlstein, a mute vampire who feeds on the hormones rather than the blood of her victims, and who extracts them orally, during the act of sex. Yes, you read that right: Irina, our bare breasted countess, takes the lives of her victims by performing acts of fellatio and cunnilingus on them.
Set and shot on the island of Madeira, Female Vampire has even more in common with pornography then Plaisir a Trois. For a start, it’s more explicit. Indeed, it’s probably the most explicit film Franco had made to this point, with the familiar exposed crotches now supplemented with an array of open-legged shots of Romay. The aforementioned fellatio is also graphically depicted, albeit only once and in footage missing from most recent releases.
The film also resembles pornography structurally, with relatively brief explanatory scenes punctuating the lengthy sexual episodes. In common with many of the hardcore films emerging around this time, there is a plurality to these episodes, with a straight scene, a lesbian scene, a masturbation and an S&M scene. We could go even further by likening the film (tonally) to those of early porn auteurs like Gerard Damiano and Richard Mahler, to gloomy, existential films like The Devil in Miss Jones (1972), Odyssey (1977) and Corruption (1983).
To be clear, the term ‘pornography’ is often used to indicate a lack of quality, a lack of taste but that’s not how I’m using it here. Female Vampire is certainly graphic, it certainly revolves around sexual set-pieces, but that’s not to suggest it’s without merit. In fact, I think it’s the most valuable of the films discussed here. It’s atmospheric, melancholic, even tragic. Irina is lonely and doomed to remain that way. She kills because she has to, not because she wants to, and when the possibility of love does present itself – in the form of our old friend Jack Taylor – it can only end one way.
Interestingly, the act of feeding doesn’t seem to satiate Irina, and the sight of her writhing dissatisfied on the lifeless bodies of her victims serves to reinforce the sense of isolation. Hers is not a hedonist’s pursuit of pleasure but a despairing drive for fulfilment, and it’s worth reiterating in this context that she is mute. Doomed never to love, she is barely able to communicate.
“I honestly wish an end would come to this bloody race I’m forced to run.”
Female Vampire was produced by Eurocine rather than De Nesle, which probably explains the presence of Daniel White’s original score, one of the most memorable in Franco’s entire filmography. Comprising a maudlin, classical theme and assorted jazz pieces, we first hear the former during the title sequence, as Lina walks through midst-shrouded woodland, directly towards the camera. She is wearing only a black cloak, belt and thigh-high boots. She stops just short of us, affording the camera the opportunity to pan down towards and zoom into her crotch, starting as we mean to go on.
The cinematography here is credited to Joan Vincent, which I assume is a pseudonym for the author and would explain the frequently cavalier approach to focus and lighting. There are some nice shots here and there – such as Lina leading the spirit / soul of a victim through the aforementioned woodland – and the camera is characteristically active during the sex scenes. The film as a whole has a very low-fi look to it though, whether that’s due to the film stock, the photographic equipment or the person behind the camera.
Having referenced voyeurism throughout this essay, it’s perhaps fitting that the final film discussed effectively ends with the director peering through an open door as his new muse writhes around in the bath. Indeed, it could be considered emblematic of a professional relationship which would endure for almost forty years, until Romay’s untimely death in 2012. That might be a little reductive though, as Franco was more than a voyeur and Romay more than an exhibitionist. She may not have had the charisma of Soledad Miranda or Maria Rohm but very few do, and while her performances in Plaisir a Trois and La Comtesse Perverse do not strike me as particularly noteworthy, I think she does quite a good job here, embodying the sadness at the heart of Franco’s Female Vampire.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:
I have heard different accounts as to how Jess became acquainted with Lina. He has confirmed it was as a result of Ramon Ardid being part of his crew though, specifically on the Redemption disk cited below.
I first read about Plaisir a Trois and La Comtesse Perverse in Obsession, The Films of Jess Franco. Sadly, the book is now in storage and I was not able to refer to it when preparing this piece.
The ‘Sexy Nature’ cut of La Comtesse Perverse gives Lina a roommate in the form of Franco’s stepdaughter, Caroline Riviere. Among the additional erotic footage is a borderline hardcore scene between Robert Woods and Tania Busselier. While a body double is used for Woods, Busselier herself appears.
The ‘Richard Mahler’ I refer to when discussing porno auteurs is actually Roger Watkins, who directed a number of very unusual, highly recommended hardcore films under than pseudonym.
It wood be remiss of me not to acknowledge the multiple versions and titles of La Comtesse Noire. In short, it exists in three distinct versions (arguably four):
The version I have described in the body of this article is basically softcore. As the explicit shots of fellatio are missing from most (perhaps all) recent releases, it could be argued there are now to distinct softcore cuts. This version / these versions are alternately known as La Comtesse Noire, Female Vampire, The Bare Breasted Countess and The Loves of Irina.
A more traditional horror version in which the countess bites the necks of her victims was also prepared at the time. I understand this version was widely available in the US during the VHS era, under the title ‘Erotikill’.
A third version was prepared some years later featuring extensive hardcore inserts. It is most commonly known as ‘Les Avaleuses’ and I believe Franco shot the inserts himself because they feature Romay. They’re very poorly done though and don’t match the surrounding footage in any way.
In terms of resources, I consulted the following in the writing of this piece:
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill (Primitive Press, 1994)
Bizarre Sinema!, by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, 1999)
The Films of Jess Franco, by Lazaro-Reboll, Olney et al. (Wayne State University Press, 2018)
The interviews with Alain Petit, Stephen Thrower and Robert Woods which appeared on Mondo Macabro’s 2017 triple feature of Plaisir a Trois, La Comtesse Perverse and Sexy Nature.
The interview with Jess Franco which appeared on Redemption’s 2012 release of Female Vampire.