Echoes of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's vicious masterpiece of a novel (which can be read online via Gutenberg.org here) begin and end with the shared title and the name of the central female character in the tale. Those looking for shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather would be best served elsewhere, but don't be deterred--there's plenty to make up for what's missing in terms of BDSM. The evocative title was appended to the film during the financing process to latch onto ongoing public fascination with the seminal kink novel, but Franco has made it clear that his intention was to create a film about a jazz musician's experience of falling in love with a mysterious and ultimately unattainable woman. Far from undercutting Franco's vision, the allusions to sadomasochism enrich the film and deepen its impact. Besides, it's been scientifically proven again and again that there are few things better suited for cinema-capture than the sight of a Eurobabe wearing little more than animal pelts.
James Darren plays Jimmy Logan, a trumpeter who has wandered the globe playing at swanky parties and smoky nightclubs. During his tenure in Istanbul, Jimmy witnesses the brutal murder of beautiful Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) by a banker (the ever-excellent Dennis Price of "Vampyros Lesbos," "Theatre of Blood" and "Twins of Evil"), a lesbian fashion photographer (Eurotrash vet Margaret Lee, who would go on to appear alongside Rohm in the groovy version of "Dorian Gray"), and a Turkish aristocrat of some stripe (the one and only Klaus Kinski). He later discovers Wanda's mutilated body on a beach, seeming to confirm that what he saw actually took place. When Wanda appears in Rio de Janeiro some time later, Jimmy is smitten with her supernatural beauty and becomes obsessed with uncovering the facts of what happened to her, threatening to destroy his relationship with nightclub singer Rita (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by Barbara McNair). What could have been a rather straightforward tale of revenge becomes a cinematic exercise that tests the boundaries of waking life and dream state that leaves more questions in its wake than answers.
The story is revealed through the heavy use of voice-over, usually in the person of Jimmy--a choice that's not nearly as aggravating as it sounds. Dialogue is employed in limited quantities, but is extremely effective, particularly during Jimmy's exchanges with Rita, who clearly struggles with their open relationship and is wounded by his growing fixation on Wanda. Much of the story is propelled with visuals and music--gloriously psychedelic visuals and music, might I just say.
As a Grooviness Delivery Device, "Venus in Furs" is extraordinarily successful. The Manfred Mann soundtrack adds rock 'n' roll drama and deceptively sweet motifs to its modern jazz base, underscoring the exotic and off-kilter world in which this film takes place. This is a universe populated by the artists, wealthy nobles, and idle rich of the Late-Sixties Jet Set, and they've got the style to prove it. Wanda is shown in a dazzling array of outfits, from a blood-red knife-pleated minidress to a menswear tuxedo to a watercolor-painted jumpsuit that would overwhelm an actress with less screen presence than Ms. Rohm's. The sets are beautiful as well, filmed on location in Istanbul and in a Roman villa. Franco's eye for location is pitch-perfect here, once again.
After extended exposure to Eurotrash cinema, one comes to develop a rather refined palate when it comes to the showing of weird crap onscreen, and this movie delivers a lot of my personal favorite stuff upon which to gorge my admittedly-rather-jaded eyeballs. Allow me to elaborate:
- Lesbian fashion photographer - CHECK (seriously, Fashion Photography must have the Textile Arts of the 1960s)
- "Garter belt" and "fur" making up the sum total of an outfit - CHECK
- Gratuitous artistic use of mirrors in shot framing - CHECK
- Prerequisite "woman crawling on the floor" nightclub number - CHECK
- Caucasian actor in the garb of the Mysterious Orient - CHECK (Franco coulda scored extra-bonus points here for outfitting Ms. Rohm in the turban, but Klaus Kinski is a very close runner up for this title, and I'm placated by the fact that Ms. Rohm is wearing very little more than elaborate jewelry during this particular sequence)
"Venus in Furs" is a languorous, sexy delight that thoroughly engaged my inner film geek as well as my outer libidinous thrill-seeker. It's a hypnotically poetic film that deserves its reputation as one of Jess Franco's finest moments.