A far cry from the monster-orientated mayhem of previous De Nesle productions, Sinner (1972) tells the story of Linda Vargas, a naive young girl whose migration to the city brings her nothing but pain. She is assaulted by a stranger on her first day there, before suffering a similar fate at the hands of an unscrupulous employer and ultimately even a doctor. Along the way she succumbs to drugs and stripping, which is how we first encounter her, as a passive partner in a red-lit, lesbian stage show.
One of eight films he completed in 1972, Sinner – or The Secret Diary of a Nymphomaniac – is immediately, unmistakably Franco, from the opening stage-show to the ubiquitous nightclub footage, to the centrality of the female cast. There’s little on-screen violence though and certainly nothing supernatural, there are no sadistic killers or forlorn vampires here. Instead we have a rather gloomy character study under the cover of a soft core sex film.
“Here lies a poor girl who lived only for love.”
Beginning with a suicide and unfolding as an investigation thereafter, it’s widely believed that the structure is a reference to and / or inspired by Citizen Kane (1941). Having not seen it for maybe thirty years, I can’t really comment beyond noting that Franco was vocal in his admiration for Welles. The extensive use of flashbacks and narration were a feature of his cinema prior to this though, with Eugenie and She Killed in Ecstasy (both 1970) being two obvious examples. An interesting divergence in this case is the way the narration incorporates third and first person perspectives, courtesy of the titular diary which appears just before the hour mark. To that point, Linda’s story had been told by her friend and patron Countess Anna of Monterrey (Anne Libert), who recounts the roots of the downward spiral based on conversations and direct observation. Thereafter, with Maria (Kali Hansa) – who could almost be described as Linda’s partner in crime – reading from the diary, we get to hear from the deceased herself, speaking out from beyond the grave.
Thematically, the corruption of an innocent is familiar territory for Franco, given the Sadean underpinnings of many of his films. The treatment is very different here though. There are no intellectualising libertines to be found in this corner of Alicante, no philosophising antiheroes. Mr Ortiz (Manuel Pereiro), for example – who Linda describes as having ruined her life – is not interesting or engaging in any way. He is just a lecherous, middle-aged man who preys on vulnerable women, who buys candy floss for his victim before assaulting her, who frequents strip clubs unbeknownst to his wife. There is no-one trying to enlighten Linda either, no-one looking for an accomplice or protege. She is simply a victim, primarily of men.
In light of the above, Montserrat Prous is perfectly cast as the doomed protagonist. Her doe eyes and slight frame give her a frailty we don’t often see in Franco’s women, at least not in the leads. Indeed, one wonders if Soledad Miranda would have been as believable in the role – I certainly don’t think Lina Romay would have. Elsewhere Cuban Kali Hansa convinces as party girl Maria, and Anne Libert is as watchable as ever as the elegant Countess of Monterrey. Jacqueline Laurent also has an important role as the austere, often appalled Mrs Ortiz, whose investigation into the crime of which her husband is accused gives the film it’s forward momentum.
Of the male cast, its no surprise that Howard Vernon makes the greatest impression, as the doctor who seems committed to helping Linda until she demonstrates she is no longer able to help herself. In many ways him turning on her marks the point of no return, the final nail in the coffin. She stares impassively into the middle distance as he angrily penetrates her, and it’s an expression we recognise from the opening scene, an expression which tells us she has lost all hope.
On the subject of the sex scenes, they’re not afforded as much screen time as one might expect, given their centrality to the narrative and the genre in which we’re operating. To be clear, the film is awash with frontal nudity – from the stage show, to photo shoots, to the casual undressing in front of acquaintances. The sex itself is quite perfunctory though, even the seemingly romantic interaction between Anna and Pedro (Francisco Acosta?), which is built up carefully and then cut surprisingly short.
Written and directed by Franco, the peculiar arrangements of these De Nesle productions warrant some discussion, as they significantly impact the finished work. Specifically, Gérard Kikoine – credited here as editor – has spoken of the director delivering rough cuts of his films along with a short synopsis, meaning the dialogue, dubbing and soundtrack were the work of, effectively, third-parties. Music has always been a vital component of Franco’s cinema, and it’s noticeable that the films of this period – including this one – rely more on rock than jazz, which seems unlikely to have been his preference. As for the dialogue – here credited to Elisabeth Ledu De Nesle, presumably the producer’s daughter – it ranges from rather poetic to very explicit. Again, one wonders if the director would have chosen to refer to body parts as frequently and in such a fashion. I can’t immediately think of any precedents in his work to this point, although there would be plenty later.
If we accept Franco as an auteur – as the principle author of his work, or at least someone who brings a recognisable style and voice to it – these production arrangements might seem a little strange. Auteur theory is problematic in itself though, given films are collaborative and commercial endeavours in almost all cases. It is worth remembering that Harry Alan Towers wrote most of the films Franco directed for him, so working with De Nesle would seem to afford the director greater freedom than that. There may also be some truth in the suspicion that Franco was primarily committed to making films, rather than to the films themselves. It might therefore have suited him to move quickly from one shoot to another, rather than spend time in an editing suite or recording studio (maybe).
Just going back to the subject of collaborators, the cinematography here is the work of Gérard Brisseau, who presents a suitably cheap-looking Alicante, a tourist town in which strippers fall out of nightclubs at dawn and photographers shoot-up in hotel rooms. It’s all a far cry from the stunning coastal vistas found in She Killed in Ecstasy.
“Her eyes were blank, the very image of despair.”
The films Franco made for Robert De Nesle were hard to see for many years, and I remember being underwhelmed by a number of them when they did come back into circulation. That was not the case with Sinner though, which is well-plotted, well-paced and well put together. It is rather downbeat, painting a particularly unflattering picture of humanity, but it’s not a depressing viewing experience for me, perhaps because it is nearly fifty years old now and aesthetically very much of its time. I do wonder whether the patrons of the theatres at which it played would have appreciated all the darkness though.
WordPress does not lend itself to traditional footnotes:
The first wave of De Nesle films included Dracula Contra Frankenstein (1971), The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein and The Demons (both 1972), which are tonally and aesthetically very different to Sinner.
Not only was Franco an admirer of Welles, the two collaborated on the latter’s Chimes at Midnight (1965).
Robert De Nesle’s wife was deceased by 1972, which is why I assume Elisabeth Ledu De Nesle to be his daughter.
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 Stephen Thrower and Gérard Kikoine which appeared as extras on Mondo Macabro’s 2010 release of the film.