Welcome to the wonderful world of Jess Franco, where couples congregate to watch strippers and smoke cigarettes, where nefarious figures use mind control to accomplish misdeeds, and where sex and death are inextricably linked. People will tell you his films are cheap and amateurish – they are generally the former and at times the latter – but they are also unique, the work of a maverick.
Shot in and around La Grande-Motte in early 1975, Shining Sex is a prime example: a glacially-paced science fiction film with no real effects, an explicit sex film with no real eroticism, a trance-inducing melange of sights and sounds. The premise is that an inter-dimensional being picks up a stripper and applies a toxin to her vagina while they’re having sex. Yes, you read that correctly. Thereafter, she sends her out to seduce her enemies, poisoning and killing them in the process.
“You are extremely ill.”
A number of the writer / director’s supposedly erotic films seem more likely to alienate than arouse their audience, and this is another one to add to that list. The characters seem by turns nauseated and anguished during the sex scenes, which is perplexing on first viewing, as two take place before we realise that Alpha (Evelyne Scott) is not of this earth. There are signs that something is not right from the outset though, from the way she bites rather than kisses, as if she has not quite understood the act in which she is engaged. Thereafter she instructs her accomplice Andros (Ramon Ardid) to penetrate their guest (Cynthia, played by Lina Romay), whose horrified face we see via the reflective surface of his glasses.
Those mirrored glasses – and images captured therein – are a notable part of the film’s aesthetic, as are the glam-rock catsuits Andros and Cynthia wear, the round-backed wicker chairs he and Alpha occupy, and the striking white skyline of La Grande-Motte in spring. As I say, there are no special effects to sell the sci-fi angle, just a palpable sense of strangeness, something akin to a waking dream.
Of course the film’s key image – one could almost call it its motif – is Cynthia’s shaved vagina, on which the camera settles again and again. I think the important point here is the transformation of meaning that takes place as the narrative unfolds, as what begins as a point of prurient interest assumes the characteristics of a loaded gun thereafter. It’s notable that we see her apply lotion to herself in the film’s opening scene, as she prepares for her striptease, and this is somewhat echoed shortly thereafter, as Alpha applies what we subsequently learn to have been a toxin.
“She’s in a trance, directed by a power greater than her own.”
Transgressive as it’s content maybe, Shining Sex is actually a very quiet film, a very still film. It’s at its best during the many wordless passages when characters seem to move in slow motion, as if they’re in a trance or under a spell (of course for much of the running time, one of them is). By contrast the scenes of exposition feel somewhat prosaic, at times even comedic, thanks in no small part to the poor English dubbing.
It was shot alongside – perhaps under cover of – Midnight Party (1975) and is another example of Franco’s ability to conjure something out of nothing, to create wherever he happened to be with whoever happened to be around. In this case that meant using a hotel room – well, more likely a suite – for both the nightclub and Alpha’s lair. It also meant reworking and recycling themes from the likes of Miss Muerte / The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965), Succubus (1968), Nightmares Come at Night (1970) and Female Vampire (1973).
In addition to writing – I suspect ‘plotting’ is a more accurate description – and directing, Franco also seems to have performed the role of cinematographer, albeit Gerard Brisseau is credited on screen. There is a fair amount of panning and zooming going on here, as one would expect. There’s also a lot of handheld work, another indicator of both of the meagre budget and tight shooting schedule. Oh yes, and he appears in front of the camera, as some sort of . . . paranormal investigator? This is absolutely Lina’s show in that regard though. A noted exhibitionist, she’s as brazen as I’ve seen her here – utterly shameless. She also reveals her often overlooked acting ability, taking Cynthia from giddy nightclub performer to helpless captive, to cold blooded killer.
For all that, this is far from Franco’s best film. The nightclub scene that gets it underway lacks the imagination of others we’ve seen, and as mentioned elsewhere, the bursts of exposition tend to undermine the ambience that is actually its strongest suit. We don’t really learn much about Alpha or her intentions, which some viewers might also consider a failing (though I personally don’t).
I suspect a lack of time and money is behind all of the shortcomings. Franco was well used to working with limited resources by this time – he seems to have chosen this path, consciously or otherwise, because of the freedom it afforded him – but there is a threshold beneath which it’s hard to compensate with best endeavours. One might argue this tension is manifest in most of the director’s work from the early seventies onwards.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:
When I say there are no special effects, there are some make-up effects here. Specifically, a powdery grey substance appears on Cynthia’s body as a result of the toxin, and by the end she is covered in glitter (of all things).
The reference to Shining Sex being made ‘under cover of Midnight Party’ is an allusion to Franco’s alleged practice of shooting multiple films – or at least footage that would appear in multiple films – with funds secured for one. Erwin Dietrich famously accused him of this, and Monica Swinn confirmed the practice in the interview which appeared in Obsession.
Flowers of Perversion, Stephen Thrower (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)
The following are also recommended, but were not consulted specifically in the writing of this piece.
Obsession – the Films of Jess Franco, Balbo, Blumenstock and Kessler (Haufen & Trebbin, 1993)
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill (Primitive Press, 1994)
Bizarre Sinema!, by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, 1999)
Murderous Passions, Stephen Thrower (Strange Attractor Press, 2015)
The Films of Jess Franco, by Lazaro-Reboll, Olney et al. (Wayne State University Press, 2018)