23 March, 2018

SINFONIA EROTICA (Severin Blu-ray)

PREVIOUS release on DVD:
Sinfonia Erotica Aka The Marquis De Sade's Sinfonia Erotica/Erotic Symphony. Directed  Jess Franco, With Lina Romay. Region 2 Import Spanish Audio No English Manga DVD

Thanks to an Internet contact I finally got a chance to see the MANGA DVD presentation years ago when I purchased a PAL capability player. The DVD is highly recommended, even though it's full-screen. There also aren't any subtitles or English language options. The image is %100 superior to the VSOM dub I had of the Italian tape, which also includes [incorrect] English subtitles and omits the original Spanish title sequence for a video generated main title card: MARQUIS DE SADE'S SINFONIA EROTICA. 

The Spanish version [it was a Spanish/Portuguese co production with Joaquin Dominguez as the primary investor]  of this 1979 film is the way to experience it. It still runs notably short of its listed 91m runtime in OBSESSION, but that may be incorrect. As Francesco Cesari notes in his essential and detailed liners there is no Liszt 4th Piano Sonata, upon which Franco supposedly based his score. In fact this film is a good example of Franco being, as he has said, a musician/composer who makes films. The score generates the mood, images, plot and characters. It's not a Ken Russell type extravaganza, though. I would place it in the top tier of Franco's Sade adaptations [it's mostly from the Bressac episode in JUSTINE, a remake of PLASIR A TROIS, but Franco's remakes are never just cut and dried remakes, they always expand in new directions].

It's an orgy of rack-focus and ambitious camera moves, like the circular track around the dinner as the participants plan against each other. Fassbinder-like pans and titled angles proliferate throughout. In terms of stylistic irony it may be Franco's closest to Fassbinder's period films. As Francesco points out the music is often used contrapuntally, to comment on and expand the imagery. It's a daring strategy which works more often than not this time out.  It's also one of Franco's best edited film, cutting from the characters to statuary, the exterior environment, and there is a fascinating internal montage in close ups which are also long shots and vice-versa. Franco atomizes objects and characters to an extreme degree as the screenshots provided by Alex illustrate.

As much of an improvement over gray market releases as that DVD was, the Severin Blu-ray now makes it obsolete and is as much a jump in quality as that was at time. 

SEVERIN BLU-RAY: A Triton, P.C./Estudio 8 [Lisbon,Portugal] Production with Candace Coster [Lina Romay] (Martine, the Marquise de Bressac), Mel Rodrigo (Flor), Armando Sallent (the Marquis de  Bresssac), Aida Gouviea, George Santos and Albino Graziani as Doctor Louys. DP: Juan Soler. Producer: Joaquin Dominguez. Based on the writings [Justine] of the Marquis De Sade; Written and Directed by Jess Franco. 84 mins. 1979. 1080p Full HD Resolution/Spanish Mono with English subtitles. 

Below: Alice Arno and Robert Woods in PLAISIR A TROIS (1973): A previous Jess Franco directed version of the Sade story.

Below: Cover for the new Blu-ray edition of SINFONIA EROTICA from Severin Films.

This 1979 Spanish-Portuguese co-production, a gorgeously lensed Sadean melodrama, is finally available in HD from Severin Films.

This is an elegant tone poem based on the same Sade story, from Justine 
-Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (French: Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu), completed in1791. Franco actually shows Sade, played by Klaus Kinski writing the novel in 1787, or at least beginning it when is imprisoned in the Bastille, at the opening of the 1968 Harry Alan Towers scripted JUSTINE. Actually it's a story within the massive novel which Franco filmed as 1973's PLAISIR A TROIS and as GEMIDOS DE PLACER. The 1973 version featured Alice Arno in the role Lina Romay plays in SINFONIA.... Alice Arno quite effective and it's an interesting film, at least visually, but not in the same league as SINFONIA.... and the 1982 GEMIDOS DE PLACER, which was shot in just a few dozen plan sequences and is even more experimental.  

Marquise Martine de Bressac (Lina Romay) the wife of wealthy Marquis Armando, returns from a stay at a mental asylum after suffering a breakdown. She finds the Marquis involved with his male lover  Flor (Mel Rodrigo) and a runaway nun. Complications arise. Franco and his expert DP Juan Cozar flood the images with light and the camera often wanders away from the twisted characters to the distances between them, a favored Franco theme according to the man himself. The images of the statues, architecture, lakes and foliage of the estate are photographed in the style of the Alain Robbe-Grillet-Alain Resnais LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1962). It's a lush period piece which illustrates Liszt's piano music, which Franco adapted himself into a score part Romantic-part Gothic horror.

But this is not a horror film per se. It plays more like a period melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk, pre his final Universal period. And as I wrote in my initial review of the DVD, the style also evokes Sirk acolyte R. W. Fassbinder (THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA  BRAUN, LOLA) in its lavish camera style, period evocation and use of color, which sometimes recalls Impressionist paintings of the late 19th and Early 20th Century. The floral environment, rich with all kinds of trees and flowers, seems as much interest to Franco as do the characters. There are many shots of budding tree branches (the opening credits), colorful sprouts and a glittering nearby lake surface, which the camera takes time to explore in detail. A sprawling castle atop an adjacent mountain also frequently captures the camera's lingering attention, even photographed through windows from interiors. This is the way Franco's  hapless EL CONDE DRACULA (1970) should have looked. 

Shot with a heavy dependence on star filters, diffusion and with a seeming desire to distort all natural light, the result is a highly stylized look which is far from any kind of realism. The period details, a villa in Sintra, Portugal, the dresses and men's wear, are all there, but everything is framed from a skewed angle or the focus is pulled, readjusted and pulled again. Instead of the zoom lens, a favorite Franco tool in the 1970s, the camera seems to constantly be on the prowl, slowly panning across bodies, rooms and landscapes, tracking toward, around and away from the action. The film seems both claustrophobic in its interiors and expansive in its sun-dappled exteriors. Gaslight and candlelight illuminate the manage a trois which often becomes a menage a quatre. 

The sex here is all devious, meant to manipulate and betray. Nothing or no one is what they seem on the surface. The Marquis is a bullying sadist who at the end, like most bullies, is shown to be a coward as he begs to die rather than be tortured. Martine, as expertly played by Romay, is both a victim and an evolving character who is playing a role within a role. Lina Romay has relatively few nude scenes and the erotic enounters are filmed in an almost abstract, rather than explicit/ hardcore, fashion. This is a film about emotional surges and variations rather than Grindhouse style sexploitation. 

Space is flattened and then expanded by Franco's elaborate camera styling and, importantly, time is expanded in these spaces. The pacing is set by Franco's own score, based on Liszt's music (concerto #2, rather than #4) but in the end is pure Jess Franco playing the synthesized result of what were no doubt improvisations on Liszt's themes. It seems as if we are witnessing the music being visualized and lulled into the 19th Century fantasia where our present concept of time is irrelevant. This film really rewards the viewer's patience and invites and further rewards multiple viewings. 

The new Severn Blu-ray, transferred in 4k from an uncut 35mm theatrical print, restores intended definition and sharpness to images meant to be that way as it illustrates the complex back and forth between focus and light flares, period lighting via the candelabra and gaslight as well as filtered sunlight pouring down on the bucolic locations.  Some of the painterly images are breathtaking and would be at home in Kubrick's design for BARRY LYNDON (1975). Of course, Franco is the polar opposite with his career long dependence on getting it in the can in one take but here he appears to have thought out and executed each and every image with extreme care and deliberation.  The film, finally, looks gorgeous and, at the same time, experimental.. Both Sade and the aspirations of Jess Franco are served well by this welcome and highly recommended HD release.

Special features include Jess Franco On First Wife NIcole Guettard, in which he uncomfortably recalls her extended, painful demise from a tumor and Alzheimer's Disease. 

In Stephen Thrower:On Sinfonia Erotica, the author of Muderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jess Franco places the film within Franco's filmography and discusses its style.

Thanks to Francesco Cesari and Wearethedead for additional informatioln. 

(C) Robert Monell, 2018

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