20 April, 2007
Severin's SEXUAL STORY OF O: DVD REVIEW
HISTORIA SEXUAL DE O (1981)
DIRECTED BY JESS FRANCO
Cast: ALICIA PRINCIPE, CARMEN CARRION, DANIEL KATZ, MAMIE KAPLAN [Mari Carmen Nieto], MAURO RIVERA
DP: Joan Almirall [Juan Soler] -Techniscope
NOTE: Plenty of SPOILERS ahead. You may want to wait and see the film first.
"I don't understand..." Odile in THE SEXUAL STORY OF O
First and foremost, this is Jess Franco's STORY OF O, NOT Pauline Reage's. A point that the director himself forcefully makes in the David Gregory directed interview segment, "Franco's O."
Odile (Alicia Principe), a beautiful but naive young woman vacationing in Spain, attracts the attentions of a voyeuristic couple who live across from her hotel. The couple spy on her as she lounges around naked, and when they invite her over for a session of group sex, Odile gives in immediately.
After spending days enjoying this menage a trois, the couple take Odile to the villa of the wealthy Princess Wanda Von Baky, where the sex continues. Wanda's perverted husband drugs Odile's drink and rapes her. When she awakens, Odile finds herself chained to a bed and that her captors have sado-erotic torture and murder in mind. One of her abductors has a sudden attack of remorse after finding her mutilated body, murders the Von Bakys, and is finally seen walking into the ocean carrying Odile's dead body. The appearance of Odile's tormentors in their formal S&M gear is a direct "quote" from EUGENIE...HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1970), but this film is even more extreme and doesn't cop out at the end with a DEAD OF NIGHT caveat. Franco seems to become more nihilistic as he ages.
HISTORIA SEXUAL DE O is superior to most of Franco's tedious sex-a-thons of the 1980s. The flowery, tropical locations and sensuous cinematography offers an aesthetic counterpoint to the downbeat melodrama. A melancholy female vocal sets a sombre tone throughout, which Franco maintains until the very last shot of the blazing sun beating down on the aftermath of violence and death. There are many effective visual and aural touches throughout, which amplify the theme of corrupted innocence. For instance, the victim is first seen wandering in an idyllic garden reading excepts from Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," foreshadowing her own fate as well as establishing the Costa del Sol locale as a kind of ironic Eden. It is also significant that her abductors use Beethoven's famous "Ode to Joy" from his Ninth Symphony to seduce her attention, underscoring the theme of Old World decadence preying on Odile's American gullibility. It's a theme which Henry James built his classic DAISY MILLER around.
As Odile, Alicia Principe [Alicia Pedreira] offers sensuality and modernity with a tragic ignorance of the brutal ways of the world. The darkly torrid Carmen Carrion and the gaunt, sinister Daniel Katz (MIL SEXOS TIEND LA NOCHE) are well-cast as the wealthy tormentors, the employees refer to them as the "pervert couple." Katz's impotent freak-out while raping Odile is especially blood-curdling. The degenerate Von Baky's are identified as German and reflect upon the racial impurity of the victims while asserting some kind of amoral superiority. As Franco notes in the interview, they are characters which could have been written by Sade and would be perfectly at home in Nazi Germany.
There is also a subtle sociological subtext similar to the situation in Franco's 1973 THE PERVERSE COUNTESS, wherein upper caste villains use a financially struggling middle-class couple to provide victims for their bloodlust. This inequity creates a scene in which a henchman turns on his vicious employers.
The scene in which the only survivor of the massacre carries Odile's body into the ocean is also lifted from the end of THE PERVERSE COUNTESS (which is turn is a lift from the 1940's Val Lewton classic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE). The long, excruciating sequence detailing Odile's torture and death is painful to watch, as chains, whips, and studded medieval-style weapons are used to strip away her flesh. Franco encourages us to become emotionally engaged with Odile, which ratchets the level of intensity even higher. The camera angles here are an almost shot-by-shot replay of a similar scene (revealed to be a put-on) in EUGENIE...HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION. Franco and his expert DP, Juan Cozar film this appalling sequence through filters which create ironically gorgeous emerald, blue and orange light refractions. It almost as if the Mario Bava of THE WHIP AND THE BODY is being referenced.
A visually entrancing erotic nightmare, HISTORIA SEXUAL DE O is a very beautiful film about very ugly events. Odile's repeated "I don't understand" also is a tragic evocation of impossible to break cultural barriers.
Daniel White's lyrical score, highlighted by a melancholy female vocal line, was first deployed in the Paul Naschy crime-horror epic, CRIMSON (1973), a Franco-Spanish coproduction helmed by Juan Fortuny and featuring a number of Franco/Eurocine regulars (Olivier Mathot, Claude Boisson). It's much more appropriate and effecitive here. There are also familiar cues from LA COMTESSE NOIRE (1973). The score is credited to Pablo Villa.
Given the recycling of elements from LA COMTESSE PERVERSE and EUGENIE...HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, HISTORIA is hardly original but what matters is the developement of earlier themes and the aesthetic sophistication with which they are transformed into something new. But Franco's developement is always cyclical, rather than linear.
John Ford once said something to the effect that good cinema is something that is short on talk and long on action. That is a perfect description of this almost dialogue free film, and although the action is violent and sexual the vision transcends it.
SEVERIN has given one of Jess Franco's most visually breathtaking films a near perfect 2.35:1 transfer. The camera frequently dotes upon the lush flora and fauna of the Costa del Sol and the tropical hues here are intoxicating. If the film is not a masterwork then Cozar's compositions show the care and skill of painter who continually fills the widescreen with bountiful servings of bursting floral arrangements, exotic fabrics, early morning ocean sprays and midnight blues. And when the blood starts spattering on the walls it's as if Paradise itself has been defiled.
Restored from original vault elements SEVERIN's typically impeccable transfer finally gives this very worthy film its long delayed due. When seen in 16:9 this is going to blow the lid off the stagnant theory that Franco is some kind of technical incompetent.
David Gregory tops off the feast by giving us another one of his excellent and unobtrusive interviews with the nearly 77 year old director. Finding Jess in an unusually self critical state of mind we learn that the production was more than modest, "two cents" rather than two dollars and that Franco was less than pleased with Principe (whom he terms "stupid") and Mauro Rivera. He saves his praise for Carmen Carrion and Daniel Katz, whom he says simply disappeared after acting in a few of his films. Jess also manages to diss Just Jaeckin's STORY OF O, suggesting the director is more of a high fashion photographer than a real director. More to the point he notes that Sade, rather than Reage, was his real influence here and encourages critics to actually "read" the oft condemned author rather than moralize about him. Even more fascinating is his discussion of his use of water symbolism as a kind of portal to another reality.
This is one of my favorite 1980s era Jess Franco films and I thank SEVERIN for this important release and continuing to examine his underestimated and underseen GOLDEN FILMS INTERNACIONAL output. Now let's have GEMIDOS DE PLACER!
I'll be looking at SEVERIN's new disc of Franco's THE INCONFESSABLE ORGIES OF EMMANUELLE next. Stay tuned...
(C) ROBERT MONELL, 2007
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