**/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring James Darren, Barbara McNair, Maria Rohm, Klaus Kinski
screenplay by Jess Franco & Malvin Wald
directed by Jess Franco
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Masterpiece is such a relative term. The keepcase for Venus in Furs (a.k.a. Paroxismus) anoints this rough jewel in Jess Franco's crown as "the one fans and critics alike call his masterpiece," but all this means is that next to some of the other films in Franco's dissipated oeuvre, Venus in Furs is comparatively competent, hangs together decently, and won't cause the intense eye-rolling of something like the same year's The Girl from Rio. But though it's slick and watchable, it's still a conceptual mess, combining a blithe pretentiousness with a total inability to suggest cause and effect--not to mention Franco's usual sophomoric sexuality. Or does being propositioned by Dean Martin while on acid count as a masterpiece?
As it turns out, the film has little to do with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's erotic classic, choosing instead to bewilder us with sub-Buñuelian antics involving a jazz trumpeter played by James Darren. Darren is in one of those trippy states where fantasy is reality and reality is fantasy, kicking things off by first digging up his horn from under the sand, then discovering a naked female body (Maria Rohm) in the surf. Meanwhile, at a party in Istanbul, said woman is alive, her name is Wanda, and apparently she exerts some kind of hold on Klaus Kinski. After a change of scene to Rio, Darren is hooked on the resurrected femme fatale, much to the annoyance of singer/lover Barbara McNair, and soon he's trapped in Wanda's web of desire. But is she killing people? Does she even exist? Does Darren? Hello?
Poor Sacher-Masoch is turning in his grave. He goes to all the trouble of inventing a glorious sadist to take full charge, and Franco gives us the old beautiful-but-deadly/look-but-don't-touch guff. Given that the director's work is largely taken up with subduing women (as with The Girl from Rio's feminazi conspiracy), it shouldn't surprise that the tone is of horror rather than adoration and mistrust rather than awe: Darren is one more sap following the aroma of desire only to be led to a rotting corpse. He wants what he can't have--and even when he gets what he wants it blows up in his face. The old male frustration settles over the proceedings, with women getting the brunt of it. No new tale to tell.
Of course, this is giving the movie entirely too much credit. Venus in Furs is less a conscious brief against women than it is a drunken stagger through erotic convention, a collection of colourful locations to lounge in with a few topless chicks drifting in cheesy-sensuous slow motion. As a series of smooth, sexy circumstances, there are more discomforting experiences than Venus in Furs, though the would-be Chris Marker temporal shenanigans get rather old as soon as it's revealed how meaningless they are, and they drag down the sensuality with their ponderousness. It's not enough just to get laid: you have to be discovering radium in the bargain. And so Franco winds up trivializing his favourite subject in a film for camp fanciers and no one else. It doesn't take a master to see through that.
I don't seem to be getting through to you, Blue Underground. I thought it was understood that brilliant transfers should be reserved for brilliant films, but here you go again wasting your efforts on a movie that barely deserves VHS-EP. To be sure, I marvelled at the 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced image, what with its shimmering colours, superb saturation, and crisp definition; the Dolby 2.0 mono audio likewise surprises with its range and delicate balance between fullness and sharpness. Yet I must once again shake my fist, grit my teeth and shout at Jess Franco: Get your mitts off that telecine, you damn dirty ape!
To be fair, the ape himself makes an amusing interview appearance (20 mins.). He amazes with the revelation that the film began with the musings of Chet Baker and that the lead was initially written for a black trumpeter (the cowardly backers got cold feet). Along with some other fascinating background on the cast and the explanation of how he was forced to swipe Sacher-Masoch's title, Franco unfortunately waxes incoherent about fantasy and surrealism to the point of inducing a headache. Less strenuous is an audio interview with Maria Rohm (11 mins.), who is utterly gracious in remembering her career in exploitation, describing co-stars such as Christopher Lee, George Sanders, and Herbert Lom with fondness and respect. Rounding out the platter: a poster and stills gallery (where the poster portion is sadly limited to two items); the theatrical trailer; and a DVD-ROM Franco bio by VIDEO WATCHDOG's Tim Lucas.
86 minutes; NR; 1.66:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Mono); DVD-9; Region-free; Blue Underground