31 March, 2020

VAYA LUNA DE MIEL: In Search of the Trivial. Finding Jess Franco in a rediscovered film.

At first glance this long unseen 1980 film is another Jess Franco adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's THE GOLD BUG. But is this frenetic comedy-adventure something more or something less than what it appears to be? In fact VAYA LUNA DE MIEL (What a Honeymoon!) is very similar in plot and style to Franco's 1981 LAS NOCHES DE LOS SEXOS ABIERTOS, which is a jaunty, erotically charged adventure-comedy about a couple in search of a hidden treasure, and it's one of several  films which he loosely based on that Poe story. But VAYA... lacks the nonstop sex, nudity and violence of LAS NOCHES.... it seems to have been deliberately made to appeal to more general mainstream Spanish audiences rather than the grind-house brigade. Franco was obviously in a very playful mood when he made it. So put on your white jungle hats and join in the fun.

                                                                   Jungle raiders

It opens with a pan shot over a crowed beach as Simon (Emilio Alvarez, who had previously appeared in Amando de Ossorio's "S" film PASION PROHIBIDA)), a clean cut young man, sits in the sun reading THE THERMOPYLAE. Yolanda (Lina Romay) walks past him, catching his eye. She then comes over and asks him to unfasten the top of her very skimpy bikini. They are married after a a brief flirtation and disembark for a tropical isle named Bananas, presumably a Banana Republic where the remainder of the film is set. All this occurs, along with a discussion of ancient Greek history, before the opening credits, signaling that the honeymoon is the kind of oneiric holiday from reality which often replaces any serious attempts at realistic verisimilitude in a Jess Franco film. A complicated honeymoon provides a perfect plot for a romantic comedy, Jess Franco style, in which the director is as much of a sight-seer as the characters. As the action proceeds Franco finds all manner of odd details in the local hotel and the streets of Benidorm, Elche, Alicante on which to focus his nervous lens.

                                                     Las Noches De Los Sexos Abiertos

Once on the island our couple become almost immediately embroiled in a search for a hidden treasure which has been already initiated by several separate parties, including a local group who want it for their town's coffers, a vacationing gangster (singer-director Max Boulois), another criminal group who closely track the couple, and a secret agent (Antonio Mayans). As in the Poe story the couple come across a series of clues which have to be carefully pieced together to reveal the location of the treasure. The first clue is discovered in the capital of the island, A dingy town which seems to be largely overtaken by a sprawling amusement park. The park is outfitted with various attractions, shopping markets, carnival rides and a Funhouse out of which stumbles a suspicious character (played by Jess Franco) who has just been shot by several gangsters. The couple is given a piece of blank paper as the dying man dying man repeats the word "beetle", which turns out to be the golden bug of the story. A Chinese inscription later appears on the paper after it is left in the sun while the couple are at a beach.

Of primary concern to Franco in this sequence are the various sculptures, images and icons of animals, demons and other bizarre figures which are everywhere in sight around the park. A sculpted vulture and a pink clad devil, among other odd figurines, seem to observe the confusion and pursuit of the couple by the gangsters and other dodgy looking individuals.. Franco's ever-active zoom lens keeps closing in on these objects as if they were as important as the human characters and the story itself. In fact, it could be intuited that they are more important in the director's obsessive, esoteric mise-en-scene. Codes, either musical or linguistic, are a favorite Jess Franco stratagem to bypass conventional narrative, they are consistent elements in the plots of KISS ME, MONSTER, LAS NOCHES DE LOS SEXOS ABIERTOSand other films throughout his career.

                                                                 Carnival Demons

The action proceeds to a series of encounters between the various gold seekers in the hotel room of the couple. Simon has a recorder with which he can summon help by playing several notes as did Al Periera (Eddie Constantine) in Franco's ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS (1966). In fact, miniature robots are also part of the plot here, appearing out of nowhere to give the couple coded directions and warnings before self-exploding. These brightly colored plastic creations seem like something out of a child's fantasy world, part of the fantasy-play matrix in which the characters are embroiled. At the end there is a hint that the entire outlandish, if somewhat silly, plot is something to enjoy before the newlyweds endure the daily realities of normal married life. Whatever it is, Franco is more interested in every tiny detail of the environment rather than any kind of real suspense, intrigue or meaning. The only meaning is Franco's desire to make another film, whether it's finished or released is of secondary importance. In fact, this film wasn't released at all and was discovered by Franco scholar Alex Mendibil in the Filmoteca Espanola.

                                                        Attack of the (toy) Robots

My first thought after seeing this long lost, never released title was that it was like one of those 1960s Walt Disney live action comedies, only conceived and directed in secret code by a mad poet whose only wish was to amuse himself. This is actually as personal, subversive and esoteric as any title in the extensive Franco collection. It's just that's not what it appears to be on its rather glossy (for Jess Franco) surface. One has to leave expectations and perceptions behind to get it, but not to enjoy it. Franco doesn't have any messages for viewers of his films, but he does offer endless, amusing subterfuges, in-jokes, auto-critiques, arcane references and genre satire which one can take or leave. He's a master of artful ridicule of subjects which deserve to be ridiculed, especially criticism in search of profound truths in cinema. This film is structured like the amusement park location, it's there to explore and have fun in. Franco's direction acts as a carnival barker, shouting "Look at the gewgaws, ride the ferris wheel, go into the Funhouse."

After viewing it I thought of my 2004 interview with Jess Franco (published in ART DECADES # 13) in which the director praised surprisingly Walt Disney and the fantasy world he created, stressing that he admired the man as a pioneer in entertainment and the universe created under his name. But he qualified that by saying the multi-million dollar Disney corporation was not something he admired. One recalls the Mickey Mouse mask wearing killer in BLOODY MOON. Disney characters also appear on t-shirts and props in such otherwise grim epics as BARBED WIRE DOLLS, LINDA and EUGENIE, THE STORY OF A PERVERSION (1980). KILLER BARBIES VS. DRACULA is like a horror musical unfolding in Disney style alternate world.The idea here is that our seemingly wholesome young couple have the kind of naivete one associates with Disney product, even if the actor who plays Simon looks to be about 15 years old (he was actually in his mid twenties as was Lina Romay at the time of shooting). Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse don't appear but the live-action cartoon quality is prominent. Franco fans expecting scenes of morbid sex and violence might be pleasantly surprised by this other side of the director's world.

So what exactly is this film which fell off the radar 40 years ago? Like many of Franco's unreleased films it may have encountered quota/tax issues and was withdrawn from the market. The production company/potential distributors might simply have decided it didn't have the commercial potential needed to insure a successful theatrical run. Given that there is no serious violence, only brief nudity and one mild seduction scene it probably would have been rate 14 in Spain (only 14 or over admitted, the next rating up from "Todos los Publicos", everyone admitted). Certain 1970s popular films which had increasing levels of sex and violence were driving international mainstream tastes to demand more of that kind of content, especially in Spain, which by 1980 had largely transitioned away from the stricter censorship of the General Francisco Franco era. Maybe VAYA... was just too genteel for rapidly changing audience tastes. That seems odd since we are talking about a Jess Franco film, after all. What emerges instead is an eccentric romantic comedy-adventure about how the honeymoon educates the newlyweds about each others foibles and the fact that the world around them is place of danger and intrigue which can best be navigated with some apprehension along with a wide open mind.

                                                           The Gold Bug

This was a rare production of the Magna sound studio which created the soundtracks for such Franco films as EL SADICO DE NOTRE DAME, SINFONIA EROTICA, DEVIL HUNTER, among others. Lina Romay is dubbed here by Mari Pe Castro, the wife of the studio''s artistic director. The film was shot on locations in Benidorm, Alicante and Elche, familiar from other Franco productions.

Thanks to Nzoog.for research assistance.

(C) Robert Monell, 2020