Part of the fun of exploring a filmmaker’s work in chronological order is the shock to the system that comes when watching a film that represents a radical departure from a director’s style that you’ve come to associate him/her with. I know audiences who’ve sometimes experienced that when they watch my films in order and how the gulf between the Lynchian surrealism of PANDORA’S PARADOX and the “artsploitation” sado-erotic horror of SHE WAS ASKING FOR IT was a wide one for them indeed. After coming off of watching the Universal/Hammer-esque THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, the Gothic Giallo THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS and the exquisitely shot, proto-female revenge masterpiece, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, a film like VENUS IN FURS certainly qualifies as the aforementioned “shock to the system.”
Yet at the same time, we find ourselves entering familiar territory with this film. Familiar in the sense that when one thinks of Jess Franco, images of sex, nudity and surrealism set in an exotic locale with a jazz score immediately spring to mind. And in that respect, VENUS IN FURS is a film that embodies all of that and then some.
It’s important to note that your interest in seeing this film for the first time may have more to do with your hope that Franco has brought his unique sensibility to capturing kinky sex on film to this timeless sadomasochistic literary masterpiece. I know that’s what attracted me to VENUS IN FURS the first time I saw it. However, the title is the only thing that has any relation to the novel. Forced by producers to use a title that would draw audiences, Franco had to rename his film, which ironically had to turn people off in the end once they realized this “adaptation” was about as faithful as James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN or Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING.
If you can forgive the blatantly deceptive marketing ploy, you’re in for a real treat as VENUS IN FURS is one of Franco’s stronger films from his experimental period of the ’70s. Now that’s not to say the film is perfect or his masterpiece as some critics are wont to decree. The film has a rather sloppy look to it, particularly in comparison to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of films like THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z as well as a disappointing twist ending that takes away from the otherwise engaging and original “supernatural rape-and-revenge” motif of the picture, but there’s also a lot of interesting aspects of the film that makes this worth investigating.
As previously mentioned, VENUS IN FURS can best be described as a “supernatural rape-and-revenge” film insofar as the plot centers on a young woman who is tortured and raped by a band of sophisticates and returns from the grave years later to get her revenge. This is done by aligning herself with a jazz musician who witnessed the crime and finds himself performing in clubs and parties that the sophisticates attend on a regular basis. The jazz musician is at first, naturally confused as to how she could be alive and well, but then realizing he’s in a Franco film where logic is about as welcome as a poor man in Mitt Romney’s home, thinks nothing of it and accepts her for what she is and even falls in love with her to boot.
What’s rather spectacular about this plot are the sequences in which the young woman actually gets her revenge. She first targets Dennis Price’s character by seducing him so successfully that he dies of a heart attack from “over-stimulation.” The music, editing and performances of the actors involved really sell this scene and make it rank among the very best that Franco has ever directed. She then moves on to the woman involved in her demise and seduces her. As they’re about to make love down by the fire, the young woman turns into the corpse that the sophisticates left behind in their wake causing the other woman to slit her wrists in a bathtub while delivering a rather poignant monologue. And finally, Klaus Kinski himself gets the best treatment for last. He plays a millionaire playboy who fantasizes about switching societal roles with a “peasant girl” and having her dominate him. Needless to say, the young woman is only too happy to oblige.
There’s also the presence of surrealism that makes this film truly stand apart from his work in the ’60s. While the films made in that period were very much rooted in the real world with straightforward plots driven by cause-and-effect, VENUS IN FURS operates on a more dreamlike basis where the lines between reality and fantasy are constantly being blurred. So much so that it doesn’t come off as strange that when the jazz musician talks about the night he met the young woman at a party that every one except the woman, himself and the sophisticates are moving and the other party attendees are frozen in place. It’s a very effective visual that’s quite chilling and powerful in its simplicity.
And then of course there’s the soundtrack. Whether you’re a fan of Jess Franco or not, one thing everyone usually admits is how fantastic the music is. While the score to VAMPYROS LESBOS is usually referred to as Franco’s greatest, I actually prefer the one here in VENUS IN FURS. It’s beautiful when it needs to be for scenes of sensuality and it’s also foreboding for scenes in which the young woman is seducing a man to death in one of the revenge sequences. Then there’s the VENUS IN FURS title track which always plays after she has successfully claimed another victim. It may sound a little jarring at first, but you’ll find yourself singing, “Venus in Furs will be smiling” long after the film is done.
My main complaint about the film is the twist ending. Now on one hand you can argue that it works and that what we’ve just seen was one big dream sequence by an individual in a state of limbo contemplating the recent events of their life. On the other hand, it’s a deliberate and misguided attempt to add a level of “deeper meaning” to the film that only angers an audience who’ve spent 90 minutes of their lives emotionally invested in what they were watching. I suppose I fall into the latter category as until that moment, VENUS IN FURS really hooked me and I was well on my way to ranking it high up there with Franco’s best work. Unfortunately I’m forced to acknowledge the greatness of a few key moments but also to point out that the journey you’re taken on isn’t one that pays off in a satisfactory way in the end.
VENUS IN FURS may be smiling, but I sure wasn’t after watching this.