Jess Franco was one of the most prolific filmmakers who ever lived; completing an average of eight films a year during his most productive period in the early seventies. Though his films are typically no more than soft-core thrillers churned out as economic commodities, there is a sense and evidence of a more sophisticated visual language in his better films. If one takes only his best films of the early seventies into account, Count Dracula (1969), Venus In Furs (1969) and Eugénie de Sade (1970), there is a remarkable consistency in Franco’s framing and narrative techniques. In all three of these films, when interior shots are employed, the camera is placed slightly lower so that the ceiling is visible.
This strategy for visual cues denoting a character’s dominance or lack there of is typically associated with the films of Orson Welles, with whom Franco worked as an assistant director in Spain. The narratives of these films are also indebted to Welles in how they, primarily Eugénie de Sade and Count Dracula, assume a flashback structure derivative in stylistic execution of Citizen Kane (1941) and Mr. Arkadin (1955). There is also, as is the case with Venus In Furs, a direct homage to Mr. Arkadin in which both films (or rather a version of Welles’ film) open with a nude woman’s body washed up on a beach. Despite Franco’s assimilation of Welles’ stylistic tendencies he never truly succeeds in elaborating on the subtextual themes in his films, rendering them visually arresting yet hollow.
Eugénie de Sade, however, is a little more sophisticated than Franco’s other films. There is an accidental self awareness at work in Eugénie de Sade that begs the question of its audience; “is all voyeurism exploitation?” Franco, intentionally or not, poses this question during the opening credit sequence of the film. As Eugenie (played by Soledad Miranda) walks onto screen approaching a blonde model with the intention of undressing her, the title fills the screen. At this point the film cuts to Franco himself in the role of Attila Tanner, seated in a movie theater watching what is apparently a snuff film (Eugenie, with the aid of her father Albert, proceed to murder the blonde model). This very simple opening sequence becomes a personal statement by Franco. He is the voyeur, watching a snuff film, fetishizing the players of the film. Then again, so are we. Audiences who attended Franco’s films were there to be tantalized by the bodies of his female stars Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm. Miranda in particular was Franco’s muse at the time Eugénie de Sade was made, and they would make six more films together that year including their most famous collaboration Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Franco’s stars were the show. And as Eugénie de Sade continues, Attila (Franco) continues to spy on and fetishize Miranda’s character Eugenie.
It is Attila who questions Eugenie on her death-bed. He extorts Eugenie by promising that he will end her suffering in exchange that she share the story of her father with whom she was engaged in an incestuous affair. This is the catalyst for the Wellesian flashback structure of the film. Within these flashbacks Attila also appears. Attila is a famous writer and a tremendous fan of Eugenie’s father Albert (Paul Muller). But he suspects that Albert and Eugenie are not only incestuous, but are responsible for a number of murders (which the audience knows they are). It is in this scene where Attila confronts Eugenie and her father that Attila begins to fetishize Eugenie, promising the pair that he “will be watching”.
In the context of the narrative of Eugénie de Sade Jess Franco is Attila, whose relationship to Soledad Miranda is one of distant observation, congruent to the relationship between Soledad Miranda and her relationship to the audience. The reality of it is, as Miranda’s director, the writer and editor of the film, and as Miranda’s lover; Franco’s relationship is more akin to that of Albert, Eugenie’s father. Franco could touch Miranda, the audience could not. The audience’s position is locked into one of voyeurism, into Attila’s perspective.
In many respects Eugénie de Sade is Jess Franco’s Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) or Peeping Tom (Powell, 1961). There is even a scene in homage to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in Eugénie de Sade where Albert and Eugenie, dressed in clothes that actually recall the design of Antonioni’s film, strangle a fetish model during a photo session. Like Michael Powell, for Franco the act of voyeurism is violent. But Franco goes further by fetishizing his subjects with a heavy-handed masculine gaze, his camera endlessly caressing Soledad Miranda’s body through an active zoom lens. Powell was a dramatist in the classic sense and never gave way to camera moves and shots that did not adhere to the objective reality of his story. Powell preferred moments of subjectivity be reserved for POV shots or scenes that took place in Mark Lewis’ (Karlheinz Bohm) studio. This gives these moments a sense of threat in Powell’s thriller. By contrast, Eugénie de Sade is so wrought with Franco’s fetishization of his female protagonist that the shots themselves are meaningless without the correlation of the other signifiers specified above.
Eugénie de Sade, Blow-Up, and Peeping Tom are concerned with issues extending beyond thematic readings, functioning, each in its own way, as a commentary by the film’s author on the nature of direction. Powell, for instance, alludes to the function of the filmmaker as an illusionist whose plastic fictions, be they tragedy or comedy, offer in human terms and experience an escape to an audience. Powell’s primary investigation in Peeping Tom is into the nature of manufacturing artificial or staged violence to the delight of a sadistic minded audience bent on escapism at any cost. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up proposes that the director, Antonioni, and the film’s protagonist Thomas (David Hemmings), share a purpose in utilizing their visual art in an investigation. Where Thomas investigates a crime, Antonioni employs Thomas’ investigation as a means to determine an abstract existential truth about the human condition or the film’s audience. Jess Franco is interested in neither existential truth nor in the inherent theatricality of the film medium, but instead revels in the superficial delight his images offer, totally aware of the fact that the viewer will share in these delights with him. This puts Franco as a filmmaker on the same philosophical level of participation with his audience as opposed to the dominating roles Powell and Antonioni hold over their viewership. In other words, within the visual strategies and context of Eugénie de Sade Franco is both author and participant; a participant in so much as he is quite literally, given the Wellesian structure of the film, the instrument through which we perceive the narrative action.
The irony of Jess Franco’s relationship to Eugénie de Sade is that he shares his audiences’ pleasure from their perspective. Not only do most filmmakers measure and derive pleasure from their completed films via their audience, but few directors who produced exploitation films revel so openly and communally in the act of voyeurism with their audience. A filmmaker like Jean Rollin was obliged to include scenes of gratuitous sex, as was Terence Fisher. Franco, on the other hand, catered his projects to the fetishes of both his audience and himself. This fact imbues Franco’s films with a personal touch that could account for his sustained popularity within the genre of European sexploitation and horror films.