23 December, 2020

JULIETTE DE SADE (Warren Kiefer, 1969) Jess Franco and Beyond.....

Vintage poster for the Italian release version of JULIETTE DE SADE

Recently I had a chance to finally see Warren Kiefer's obscure, shot-in-Italy feature film, JULIETTE DE SADE (1969).*  Kiefer (1929-1995) was an American novelist, screenwriter and director who managed to make four largely forgotten films during the 1960s. It's a modern take on the writings and philosophy of the Marquis de Sade which unfolds in 1969, in the midst of the era of peace, love, Woodstock, hippies, Manson and the emergence of an international counter culture. In cinema it was the era of breaking sexual boundaries, ultra-violence on the big screen (Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH was also released in 1969), and exploring once forbidden subjects. JULIETTE DE SADE was not the only Sade film released in 1969. There was Jess Franco's big-budget (for him) JUSTINE AND JULIETTE, produced by Harry Alan Towers and  American International's biopic, DE SADE, featuring Kier Dullea in the title role. The 1967 Peter Brook film of the play MARAT/SADE, in which Sade himself was a character putting on a historical drama, had already refreshed the memory of Sade in the pop culture of that decade. It was to be expected that exploitation products based on the works of Sade would follow.


Franco would release several more Sade adaptations in the 1970s, the best being EUGENIE DE SADE, starring the fated Soledad Miranda. EUGENIE, THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, based on Sade's novel PHILOSOPHY IN THE BOUDOIR, featuring Maire Liljedahl and Christopher Lee,  opened in the U.S. in 1970. More Franco-directed Sade films would appear throughout the 1970s (PLAISIR A TROIS, SINFONIA EROTICA, COCKTAIL SPECIAL), into the 1980s (EUGENIE: HISTORIA DE UNA PERVERSION,  GEMIDOS DE PLACER), and his 21st Century digital period (HELTER SKELTER, 2000). 

 Above: Body painting in JULIETTE DE SADE.

Sade's 1798 1000 plus page epic is a companion to, and second part of LE NOUVELLE JUSTINE, OUR LES MALHEURES DE LA VERTU (1797).  It's a first person, episodic narrative, in which Juliette travels the world, getting educated in :he Sadean philosophy as she participates in a cornucopia of sexual perversions. At the end, she announces, "...the truth itself, and the truth alone, lays bare the secrets of Nature, however mankind may tremble before those revelations. Philosophy must never shrink from speaking out." And speak out it continuously does in six long, detailed sections. The most surprising element of Kiefer's film is that it ends with a refutation by the heroine of Sade's philosophy as she flies away to a far more conventional lifestyle and mindset. 

Opening with Juliette (Maria Pia Conte) attending body painting sessions, orgies, sexy dancing parties, we're immersed in La Dolce Vita,  Rome 1969 style. She finally meets a distinguished looking expert of the philosophy of Sade. Played by familiar Euro-genre character actor John Karlsen, a gaunt, elderly looking actor who appeared as authority figures, villains, and professional types like the doctor who ran the insane asylum for women in Fernando Di Leo's Italian slasher SLAUGHTER HOTEL (1971). Karlsen looks like he's in his 80s here, even with a very 1969 Fu Manchu mustache. The actor would go on to appear in dozens of other Rome based European Cult/Trash cinema genre films and sometimes mainstream Hollywood titles like BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.  

Above: Prolific Eurocult actor John Karlsen

The Sade enthusiast hosts a dinner in which one of Juliette's friends does an enticing erotic dance in close contact with a miniature of Michelangelo's "David." This is the most erotic scene in the film, and despite it being supposedly based on a Sade novel, contains no scenes of sadomasochistic violence. It's more like Franco's VENUS IN FURS,  the title of which suggests a famous book which explored masochism. another 1969 release, which did contain scenes of whipping, torture and had a much darker tone and an appropriately  ambiguous ending.

Juliette's Sadean instructor even gifts her with an ultra sleek, high ticket Lamborghini, in which she speeds around from one Roman hot spots to another until a bad Roger Corman-like LSD trip (in a museum!) results in a change of consciousness . Suddenly aware of the superficiality of her lifestyle, represented by her throwing the keys to the Lamborghini back to her guru, her rejection of both him and the philosophy of The Divine Marquis seems complete and permanent. But, you never know. This was still the 1960s, albeit on the cusp of the more unpredictable 1970s. The feeling of wanting more thematic exposition is the film's main problem. Perhaps a more visual/ironic representation of the perversions and contradictions illustrated in the writings of Sade would have been appropriate. One wonders if censorship were an issue. The print consulted for this review was more than 10 minutes shorter than the original runtime.
Above: Dirty dancing with a Michelangelo masterpiece.
Even Roger Greenspun's review in The New York Times, published December 27, 1969**(see below), complains that the heroine is never allowed to completely disrobe on camera. You know you're in trouble when The New York Times is suggesting more nudity was necessary for authenticity.  Greenspun makes some good points in the review, but I find it overly dismissive and has an annoyingly superior tone. Flaws and all, JULIETTE DE SADE is a rarely seen oddity, worth seeing over 50 years after it was made. Kiefer was a talented novelist and an interesting, if under-productive,  filmmaker. His Italian-shot horror film, CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964), is a macabre, atmospheric, Gothic period piece. That film featured Christopher Lee as a castle bound aristocrat with a morbid obsession with the science of embalming. An actor with the agency of Lee would have provided needed grounding and authorial presence in JULIETTE DE SADE, rather than a voice-over. Nonetheless, this film deserves to be rediscovered, restored to its full length English language version and given an HD debut.

Here's a link to Robert Curti's excellent article on the writing and film career of Warren Kiefer. https://offscreen.com/view/warren_kiefer 

*Thanks to Jeremy Richey for helping me see this film.
** THE NEW YORK TIMES review of EUGENIE DE SADE, which opened in New York City on December 26th, 1969.
REVIEW by Roger Greenspun. Dec. 27, 1969. "For perhaps two minutes, at the beginning and again at the very end, "Juliette de Sade," now playing at the Rialto East and the Rialto West, succeeds as erotic movie making. In those minutes we are offered close-ups of the star's thighs, her lips, a poised cigarette, her invitational eyes—put together in slow, straightforward montage as a kind of monumental tease. Such moments of colossal intimacy, of passionate secrets shared with a movie screen, are of course their own reward. But in "Juliette de Sade" they are too meager and too few to validate the film.For the 81 intervening minutes, the same young lady, Maria Pia Conte, offers us almost nothing at all. This is the first time I have seen a movie with pretensions to pornography in which the principal actress never disrobes for the audience.
Because she leads a life of willing sin and dissolution, she is continually in situations (bed, for example) where she ought to be undressed. But she never visibly is, and the resulting calisthenics devoted to holding the sheets up under the chin or keeping the beach towel from falling off would have done credit to, say, the athletic purity of Doris Day in her most embattled moments.Based, according to the distributor, on Sade's "Juliette," the film concerns a precocious young thing who leaves her convent school quickly behind and comes to conquer mad, mod, swinging Rome. She finds a roommate, buys a lot of new clothes and meets an evil old man with a walrus mustache. He declares himself a follower of the divine Marquis de Sade, a name that from, the pleasure principles the old man elaborates, might as well be a pseudonym for Jeremy Bentham. He promises to instruct Juliette in his "philosophy." Connoisseurs of the genre will recognize that "philosophy" is always a dirty word when muttered in the presence of a leggy blonde, but in this film it might as well be a system of Kantian imperatives for all the bad that comes from it.So the old man gives her a new car, has her over to dinner with some friends and plays a game of chess with her. For a time she accepts this corruption. ("I had Rome where I wanted it, in the palm of my hand. And I wasn't going to let go until I had squeezed it dry," exults Juliette's voice, English-dubbed, while her yellow-green Lamborghini P400 zips past St. Peter's.) 
And it is here, on the beaches and in the middle-class apartments of Rome, that the film's imaginative poverty (not depravity) shows itself to worst effect."Juliette de Sade" means to suggest a sensualism of rich ornamentation and of plastic surfaces. Like most movies of its type, the film pretends to private knowledge in addition to sex, and to forbidden mysteries beyond the body.But, unlike most movies of its type, it supports those pretenses with fairly classy production values and handsome photography. It falls victim to its own aspirations, and to a tone of prissy elegance. Typically, Miss Conte, though she never strips, does indulge in a singularly unexciting fashion show.Before she breaks away from her sponsor—to set up in business for herself—Juliette suffers an LSD trip and an orgy. Nothing in the trip (the worst in a miserable tradition) deserves description. But during the orgy, which consists of two men and three women eating grapes, etc., Juliette's roommate does an erotic dance around, over and up against a pint-sized reproduction of Michelangelo's "David." The scene is supposed to be tense with energy and illusion, but the girl slithers without conviction, and the little David, a model of outmoded decorum, hides his plaster with a fig leaf.
The Cast: Juliette . . . . . Maria Pia Conte  Toni . . . . . Lea Nanni Clarissa . . . . . Christine . . . . . Angela de Leo. JULIETTE DE SADE, directed by Warren Kiefer; produced by Ninki Masiansky; released by Haven International Pictures. At the Rialto East, Broadway near 42d Street, and the Rialto West, 42d Street west of Broadway. Running time: 83 minutes. (Not submitted at this time to the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code and Rating Administration for rating as to audience suitability.)

(C) Robert Monell, 2020

13 December, 2020

LA ESCLAVA BLANCA (Clifford Brown/Jess Franco. 1985)



 Of the eight other films Franco made in 1985 (half of them hardcore porno features), this very low budget adventure stands out because of an absorbing, multi-layered script by ace Spanish screenwriter Santiago Moncada. Beside writing Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, Claudio Guerin Hill's THE BELL FROM HELL and Juan Antonio Bardem's THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, Moncada has written and produced screenplays for a variety of European genre directors. Manuel Cano's SWAMP OF THE RAVENS, TARZAN'S GREATEST CHALLENGE and VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST were all based on Moncada screenplays, not to mention the ultra-violent Spanish western CUTTHROATS NINE. This film was co-produced by Moncada and Franco's Manacoa company.

                                       Above: Prolific Spanish screenwriter Santiago Moncada

.As for Jess Franco, 1985 wasn't his best year, but it was a busy one, offering a variate of micro-budgeted genre projects. In LA ESCLAVA BLANCA, Moncada gives us three separate stories that gradually interweave and come together in the final scene. The first story seems to have elements of MACBETH and B movie programmers. A weak-willed jungle guide is manipulated by his domineering wife into committing a series of crimes. During a safari, he leads a honeymoon couple (José Llamas and Conchi Montés) into a trap laid by the Tobonga, a Stone Age tribe that worships a giant lizard god. The bride is tied to a sacrificial altar for later sacrifice. The second story starts out in the city, where a female karate student (Lina Romay and two of her instructors accidentally discover the secret of the Tobonga. In the third story, two separate expeditions make their way back to the Tobonga camp. One of these groups includes the original guide, who has been abducted by the karate instructors (they have also killed his wife). The other consists of the husband of the abducted woman and the female karate student (Lina Romay) who has split off from the school. During the long trip back, the guide has a change of heart and decides to repent, turning against his captors and helping the people he originally betrayed.

 The climax of the film, shot and edited with dispatch despite the budgetary restrictions, may remind some viewers of a miniature version of the final scene in THE WILD BUNCH. The very last scene, in which the Tobonga gold is abandoned by the survivors, echoes THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE. Franco's film, of course, is a lot less ambitious than those two classics, but maybe that's why it works so well. The massacre at the Tobonga camp, the abduction scene, and the opening safari are as well-staged as anything Franco has ever done. There's also an amusing dose of voodoo dancing thrown in for good measure. He takes it all seriously, even though it's bascially juvenile comic-strip pulp. But, then again, Jess Franco had a life long passion for comics and pulp fiction. 

Daniel White's pulsating drum and vocal score is familiar from some of Franco's other jungle adventures (MACUMBA SEXUAL, DEVIL HUNTER), but this is by the most unpretentious of the lot. Jose Miguel Marfa and Mabel Escaño are both very effective as the safari guides from hell. With its karate scenes, voodoo rituals, adventure story, literary and film references, LA ESCLAVA BLANCA seems like a kind of compendium of Franco's 1980's output (minus the XXX sex material). I

If one can get past his other sub-standard jungle/cannibal fare, this one is most definitely provides 90 minutes of undemanding entertainment. I would be pleasantly surpised if this fogotten mid 1980s programmer showed up on a Bllu-ray release, but stranger things have happened. I I had some behind the scenes photos of the shoot supplied by Senor Marfa but haven't yet been able to transfer them here. The Spanish locations will be very familiar to seripusJess Franco collectors.

 (C) Robert Monell Updated 2020