Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 13: Death by Lethargy

Following the fervor over Rape of the Vampire, two new kinds of films would become common fair all over Europe. The first, the ambient sex film, would be practiced for just under 10 years and then vanish, leaving critics and onlookers to try and lump them half-heartedly into other genres. They weren't quite pornography, as most practitioners seemed like passive observers of the sex acts, rather than wanton purveyors. The directors were just as cool and unconcerned with the sexuality they were depicting as the lion's share of the people doing the deed. Jesús Franco was a big fan of this kind of fare, and did little else during the 70s (The Frightened Woman was another film in this vein). The second genre, as I mentioned in my Rape of the Vampire review, was the lesbian vampire film. As much as Rollin's film did little to impress audiences and critics in France, by 1972, just about every country in europe had produced one, many based on J. Sheridan LeFanu's novel Carmilla or the legend of Countess Bathory. Jean Rollin, as we'll see, split his time between both (when he wasn't making straight-up sex films, which was often). His movies were always static, featured sex and typically had two female leads at the mercy of a group of horny, unbalanced men. Oh, and they were also terrible.

By Jean Rollin

In a prologue not unlike the kinds in front of old American spy serials, we're introduced to four villains in what could be anywhere from the 1700s to the early 1900s who make their living wrecking ships, killing everyone who didn't perish in the crash and stealing the goods from the debris. In the midst of one such night of debauchery, two dazed blondes happen upon our rapscallions. Tina, the only woman in the gang, orders two of the men, Paul and Bosco, to rape and kill them while she has sex with the fourth guy known only as the Captain. We then watch the equally unappealing acts of Paul and Bosco (who look like impressionist painters dressed in kiddie pirate costumes) spend fully ten minutes raping and murdering the two girls, while Tina (played by the lovely and talentless Joëlle Coeur, who was in a few ambient sex films in her time, clearly cast based on her willingness to bare her naked breasts) and the Captain (John Rico, who's easily twenty years older and two hundred pounds heavier than Coeur) have sex.

Back in the island pub (which looks like a poorly furnished costume shop), the Captain tries to unwind amongst the other pirates (one of whom sports a pair of sunglasses) but he keeps having visions of the two women. He wigs out in the tavern and runs to tell his gang leaving the barmaid and her girlfriend to speculate about what's driving him mad. They will act like a Greek chorus throughout the film, except instead of making things clearer, they mostly play cryptic songs on the piano and make things even more confusing (they comment on things occasionally, but it makes no difference. Who cares what Bosco is thinking, he's the villain and he has maybe a dozen lines). The gang takes in the Captain's story but don't have time to react before someone reports having seen the ghosts of two women down by the shore. I'm only just now realizing the parallels between this movie and an episode of Scooby-Doo. So the gang rushes down to the beach in the Mystery Machine to find the g-g-g-ghosts in the ruins of some ships. They manage to corner the poor blondes in an old ship and burn it to the ground, but still the girls somehow manage to escape. Next thing we know, the two women have been led to an old set of ruins, which like most of Rollin's locations is cool and atmospheric but gets nowhere near the attention it deserves. There the two women meet a clown and a portly fellow in full Renaissance Festival garb. These characters tell the girls that they've a big part to play in some cosmic scheme or other and spout some faux-philosophical nonsense before asking the girls to take their clothes off so they can be introduced to Satan, who lives in a locked closet (I'm not kidding). The girls are told that they alone hold the key to letting the prince of darkness free, they just have to choose whether or not they want to...cause that makes sense. I guess the gang have a mean haunting coming their way, though, eh? If only Shaggy ever got half the punishment these guys do...

Enter much running around, terrible special effects, dropping vases on people, svengali piano playing, and nudity...loads of it. So much nudity that it becomes problematic: the women all have tan lines though they live in an age without tanning. The film has no plot to speak of. Things happen, sure, but allow me to run something by you: pirates kill two girls, who don't die, so they kill them again but they still don't die, then they meet Satan, a clown, and a fatman so the pirates die and then the girls die. That isn't so much a story as the finer points of a madman's drunken ramblings. The production design has much the same feeling: the costumes look procured from a poorly attended beat-happening, the sets are limited to the bar and underused outdoor locations, the actors are not really that at all, the death scenes are all based around things that can be executed cheaply (The girls try to kill Tina by dropping bits of stone on her from a great height by raising their arms and lifting them psychically...or whatever). It's awfulness really and truly has to be seen to be believed not that I recommend this or anything else Jean Rollin ever made but I could think of worse things to watch for laughs at a party. I do admit that despite my objections there is a certain hypnotic quality to the outdoor scenes but it is still and all a dreadful movie. It approaches hilarity with its cheapness and purposelessness and the sheer madness of bits like when Joëlle Coeur delivers her big revenge speech while completely nude and hopping on her bed. And who knew Satan was such a good guy?

It's nuts in that way that today's movies don't achieve (except maybe Tommy Wisseau's The Room) because today no one's willing to pay for an hour thirty of rubbish with no plot; today's producers want cookie-cutter sex farces and torture porn to go with their nudity. The days of the ambient sex film are over: if you want nudity (even PG-13 nudity) you have to sit through a lot of very objectionable content first (Hostel, Turistas, Jennifer's Body, etc.). Back in the day, if you had a moody set and a boat load of nude women that was all you needed. This next film was and remains pegged as horror but I defy anyone who's seen it to tell me what's frightening about it. It's in the films refusal to do anything that leads to its misidentification, which so often happened with the ambient sex films. Sure, its sinister and fantastical in a sense, but what exactly is scary about a bunch of women laying about nude on bear skin rugs? Nothing, but people would have rioted if they tried passing this off as Fantasy or Drama.

The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay
By Bruno Gantillon

The title comes from a bit of the Arthur legend about a witch of the same name whose story bears no resemblance to the 'story' in this film. Françoise and Anna are two girls on holiday. They stop at an inn but don't like the look of the place or the attitude of the many leering men inside. They decide instead to spend the night in an abandoned-looking barn. Whilst trying to go to sleep the two have sex; a dwarf spies on them from outside. In the morning two discoveries greet Anna...well, one greets us actually... The barn was attached to a house and the two girls could have slept in beds instead of a pile of hay, but what the fuck do I know? The other is that Françoise is gone. Anna runs into the woods calling her name and finds the creepy dwarf instead who insists he knows Françoise's whereabouts. She follows him to an atoll with a castle in the middle. She and the dwarf take a boat to the castle and are greeted by three women in see-through gowns (a staple of both the ambient sex film and the lesbian vampire film). Anna is then taken to Morgane (Morgana only in the notes for the english-language version of the film, apparently because a silent 'e' would have been too much for Americans to handle. No one ever calls her anything but Morgane), the queen of the island. Morgane insists that Anna not worry so much about her friend, that all will be revealed to her in time.

Anna never gives up asking about Françoise, but she does accept the uniform of the girl-slave (said gown) and partakes of more than a few girl slaves herself. She tries to escape, but Morgane keeps appearing out of nowhere with a full lunch spread and insists that escape is futile....people do a lot of insisting in this film. So she relaxes and along with about four or five dozen other girl slaves hangs out nearly naked making out while watching three of the women perform the sort of dance that is usually reserved for Sinbad the Sailor whenever he reaches a foreign land. Somehow in the midst of her decadent but lazy new lifestyle, she learns that the only way to escape (with or without Françoise, whom she locates in the orgy chamber) is by obtaining three tokens and because this is a french movie with the words "Girl Slaves" in the title one of those tokens is someone's shirt. Because the dwarf has been dwarfed by all the pretty girl slaves hanging about and feels neglected by Morgane, he helps Anna find the tokens so she can escape. And just once more for an even half-dozen: GIRL SLAVES!!!!

One of the other tokens is a ring that makes her invisible. And I don't mean Claude Rains-Kevin Bacon invisible, I mean she's standing right in front of us and everyone pretends not to see her. Gantillon didn't even try a take where she's not in the frame. That's a telling scene because the whole film reeks of that kind of lethargy. No one cared beyond putting on the gowns and writhing around a bit. The film shies away from anything resembling hard-core sex or even mild violence and so is effectively the story of a girl wandering from one orgy to another trying to find the perfect outfit. Yet we know it as a horror film. Thank you Jean Rollin. for allowing this kind of cinematic bunk to not only get made in the first place, then be given a special edition DVD. Doris Wishman made better films than this, because horrid though they were at least things happen in her movies. I wouldn't mind the idea of a film like this if it had any ambition. The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay is in that rare space between offensive and non-existent. If this went the extra seven paces with its content and could have been marketed as porn, I'd maybe not get upset; I often despise pornography but it has no delusions about its ambition. Girl Slaves is not porn because in order to be that someone would have do something; it's not horror for the same reason. I can't defend a movie that skirts major censorship problems by not being objectionable because the whole notion of making a film like this was to be objectionable.

So for awhile humanity was content with the idea that people were producing films where women lounged around in see-through gowns. I don't know how I feel about that. As someone who more often than not identifies as heterosexual, the sight of women in next-to-nothing is not something I can help but enjoy looking at but if I've said it once I've said it a hundred times: women should not be treated as set-dressing. They are not the means to an end, they are ends in themselves but the film industry (as much today as yesterday) has yet to come around to this way of thinking. The ambient sex film essentially gave misogynists a way to legally film what they masturbate about and then get paid for it, maybe even get critical praise 30 years down the line. That Jean Rollin was basically able to carve a niche out for himself in the cinematic landscape is admirable, but he wasn't the first or last to do it. What do men like? Naked women (explosions, car chases, gun fights, fighter planes....). That alone is not (as we have seen) enough to hinge a movie on. Rollin and others, like Bruno Gantillon, José Ramón Larraz and Jesús Franco tried skirting the issue by sprinkling profoundly un-profound images and bits of dialogue in the apparent hope of being mistaken for a genius, but there's no mistaking this films for anything but shit.

No comments: