Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Countess Perverse

Countess Perverse
Original Title: La comtesse perverse
Directed by: Jess Franco
France, 1973
Drama/Sleaze/Dark Comedy, 78min
Distributed by: Mondo Macabro

I’m a sucker for directors cuts, presumed “lost forever” finds, multiple source prints and stuff like that. There’s something magic with watching re-cut or reassembled with previously missing, but now found in someone’s cupboard footage or sparkling restorations that try to recreate the director’s original vision that completely enthrals me. Perhaps even more so when it’s cheap exploitation fare, as it shows a level of admiration, passion, attention and respect for these fantastic movies that they haven’t’ been getting before.  Celluloid oddity enthusiasts, Mondo Macabro have finally come to the point in time where they follow up their previous selection of pimped Jess Franco titles: Sinner - Diary of a Nymphomaniac 1973, Lorna The Exorcist 1974, and one of my all time favourites, The Diabolical Dr. Z 1966  - with the ultimate, restored version of the "lost" directors cut of La comtesse perverse (Countess Perverse) 1973.
When I first started getting into Franco movies back in the late eighties, early nineties, one of the things that fascinated me was a recurrent tale my peers and fellow Franco enthusiasts would tell me. The tale of how Franco would make several versions of the same film, to cash in on several different areas. Sometimes a rawer horror/thriller version followed by a softcore erotic version and then rounded off by a hardcore version. At the time it felt like an ingenious way to cash in on several different areas and I thought Franco was something of a marvel to have this insight and wisdom. But the more time I’ve spent watching and researching Franco, it’s becomes obvious that the multiple versions are rarely a move of his will. It’s unfortunately more often something forced upon him by producers and distributors who seemingly push the movie – or Franco’s vision if you want – into a completely different pigeonhole.
Franco originally shot this movie as an erotic little horror themed black comedy called Countess Perverse in 1973 - which this restored version presents. His producer at the time, Robert De Nesle, feared reactions to the cannibalistic themes presented in the movie and demanded a change to take the edge off the movie’s violent content and down beat climax. So new footage featuring Lina Romay and Caroline Rivere, (stepdaughter of Franco), was shot, bringing a comedic tone to the film and adding amongst other things an “It was only a dream” ending to the film. But it doesn’t stop there, because during the same time period a new cinematic novelty was hitting the screens with the result that exploitation filmmakers – and producers – where loosing out to, the novelty of Porn. The seductive French erotic movies couldn’t compete with imported hardcore porn, and this left the sexploitation films in peril. In 1975 the French government passed a law that permitted screenings of hardcore porn, which allowed French filmmakers to get a piece of the action. So producers started adding inserts into their movies and titles they already had on the shelves. This is quite possibly what led producer de Nesle to, once again, take measures to keep up with what audiences wanted. Hardcore inserts featuring Romay, Pierre Taylou and Monica Swinn where shot and added to the movie to create a third version, Les Croqueuses (The Munchers) which hit the French adult cinemas in 1975. This version later ended up in Italian hands, where further random hardcore footage was added, much like the godawful XXX version of 99 Women 1968, edited by Bruno Mattei. This Italian version is known under the name Sexy Nature!  
Anyways, back to Countess Perverse, the directors cut:
Now, this might be a little spoilerish, but I'm pretty certain that it won't stop you from watching the movie.

Bob [Robert Woods] and Moira [Tania Busselier] find a naked woman, Kali, [Kali Hansa] washed up on the beach outside their house. The woman is delirious and moans about a house on an island and the people there who are going to kill her, Count and Countess Zaroff!  [Alice Arno and Howard Vernon]

Bob & Moira take the woman back to the island, before they invite a friend to stay at their house by the sea. Sylvia [Lina Romay] eagerly moves in, and the couple lure her into a sinister ménage a trois, which induces jealousy, between the couple. A boat trip takes them to the Zaroff Island where they all sit down for a red meat dinner. The initiated can read a subtext in the dialogue that goes right past Sylvia’s head. Countess and Count Zaroff visit Sylvia late at night, as she ends up in the middle of yet another ménage a trois.

Following their session, Sylvia hears noises and takes up her own investigation which leads not only to an image to make you fall head over heels in love with Romay all over again, but also to revealing the dreaded secret of the Zaroff’s. They are cannibals, Sylvia finds them midst decapitating the body of Kali, and they tell her she’s next. A naked Sylvia runs into the countryside as the prey for the day and just might end up being plat de jour.
Leaning sternly upon the plot of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, Franco came up with this frisky and darkly comedic twist to the story immortalized through Pitchel and Schodesack’s 1932 movie, which has then been done to death from there on up through Ken Dixon’s Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity 1987, influencing stuff like Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot 1982, Lucio Fulci’s New Gladiators 1984, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale 2000 and inspiring mainstream bollocks like the Hunger Games 2012 along the road.

Countess Perverse was shot back-to-back with Plaisir à trois - featuring the same crew and cast, and mostly improvised. Although I still believe that Franco had some kind of basic idea of what he wanted from his actors, as there are some key scenes that make this a highly enjoyable gem with some amazing visuals, perfectly sleazy moments and sinister dark comedy.

Approaching this film as I would anything else I watch here I’d say that the protagonists of the piece are established effectively as Kali in the opening scene tells of her ordeal, even if in brief form, at the hands of the Zaroff’s. The flashback narrative, shot with extremely wide angles, give an almost dreamlike illusion before the architecture of Ricardo Bofill’s Xanadu - which almost seems to be defying gravitation – pops into frame and the Zaroff’s, like lurking predators, invite her into their web of depravity.
Oh, and on that architecture, the next time in Stockholm, take a walk from Medborgarplatsen to Södra Station, and lookout for the half circle shaped apartment complex near Medis… Yeah, that’s designed by Ricardo Bofill and now you know why it’s called Bofills Båge. It’s our connection to Franco from now on. Franco also uses Bofill’s Xanadu in Sie tötete in Ekstase (She Killed in Ecstasy) 1971, and Eugenie - Historia de na perversion (Eugenie – The Story of Her Journey into Perversion), 1980, and I’m sure that observant viewers will find it used on more occasions.

So the threat of the island, and the Zaroff’s is established. We know what they eat, and cannibalism is definitely on the list of taboos. At the time of Countess Perverse, 1974, Lenzi had only started dabbling with the themes that would in a few years erupt into the Cannibal genre, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 was just around the corner waiting to pounce, so Cannibalism still was a pretty shocking occurrence on screen.
At the time cannibalism may have been provocative to producers and audiences, but today the cannibalism works as a platform for some wonderfully sinister dark comedy. It gives a fun rush of insight when we realize that the meat is human. Editor Gerard Kikoïne’s juxtaposition of dialogue and close ups of chunks of meat roasting on a grill is splendid, and Vernon sniggering manically each time they asked what meat they are eating is genius. The reason I question the improvisation claim, is that these innuendos are also fond repeatedly in the dialogue. Lines such as “Sorry for the tough meat, next time… oh you won’t be here next time… “ must have required some thought, but perhaps that should be credited to the French dubbing and dialogue added in post. More on that in a moment.
The second major shock comes when Bob and Moira, after hearing Kali’s devastating tale of cannibalism, sexual abuse and daring escape, turn her right over into the hands of the Count and Countess.  This kicks off a subplot concerning morale and doing bad for better cause, as Bob and Moria have an agenda. They want to get away from the life they are living, escape from the current situation.
I find it interesting in the way the Bob character plays out, because he has remorse for what they have done. He’s obviously obsessed by Sylvia – and who wouldn’t be – and the guilt from taking her to the Zaroff’s, leads him to take serious actions against Moria, and later challenge the Zaroff’s to little effect. This character redeems his immoral ways, he tries to correct his wrongdoing and find some kind of redemption as he tries to put things back to normal.

Taking the down beat ending and Vernon’s nihilistic closing speech in mind; it’s fair to see why producer Robert du Nesle became concerned about audience reactions, and took to the drastic measures taken. Today this kind of ending is a predicted narrative tool when it comes to many genre movies, but at the time, I’d dare say that Franco was breaking new turf, which when one thinks about it is outstanding proof to the genius of Jess Franco.
Another reason I adore the films of Jess Franco is that he’s had the balls to experiment with his filmmaking. He always makes the most of what he had to work with, just look at Paula-Paula, 2010 for an instance. Armed with a simple DV-Camera, Franco presented us with a concentrate of aesthetics that saturate most of his work, and even worked in a small final part for Romay as Alma Pereira - another returning Franco character. Or the excessive zooming that the unfaithful unfortunately associate with his films in a negative way. In reality the zoom technique was a result of the tight schedules given to him by producer Arthur Brauner during the suite of movies shot in 1971 – She Killed in Ecstasy, X312 – Flight to Hell, Vampyros Lesbos, and Der Teufel kam aus Akasava. Instead of grinding the production to a halt to reposition cameras and lighting for cut away shots, a rapid zoom back and forth, gave the same kind of result, whilst saving valuable time and money.
In Countess Perverse, he’s obviously experimenting with camera lenses and composition. Many scenes start with a distanced master shot, lingering there as long as possible, before cutting in to wide or mid shots. A lot of these mid shots are shot with wide-angle lenses that give a fisheye effect, which is really effective, creepy and surreal. It also hit me that there’s a lot of great dolly work going on in Countess Perverse too, something I rarely associate with the cinematography on Franco films. I have to point out the gorgeous compositions because Gérard Brisseau’s cinematography is outstanding, and he really makes the most of the fantastic Bofill architecture. Pacing is almost flawless, and Gérard Kikoïne’s editing moves the movie forth in a steady flow.

Immaculately restored, with a stunningly crispy HD image, Countess Perverse has been returned to the original vision Jess Franco had in mind thirty-eight years ago by Stéphane Derdérian and screenwriter/actor Alain Petit (Jean Rollin’s La morte vivante (The Living Dead Girl) 1982, Franco’s Justine 1979 and Tender Flesh 1997). Petit is said to have been present when Franco edited the movie back in the day, and I seem to recall reading somewhere that he’d confirmed the original aspect ratio as the presented 1.33:1 – there’s even an onscreen guide to make sure you get it right.
Franco started editing his own movies early seventies – uncredited on Plaisir à troisKikoïne get’s the credit. So perhaps he (and Petit) where present, but didn’t physically cut and splice film together himself.  As it’s told, Franco shot the scenes, assembled a mute rough cut which was then sent back to the offices of CFPC (Comptoir Français de Productions Cinématographiques). There Kikoïne edited the movie and this is most likely this is where co-credited writer, Elisabeth ledu de Nesle, wrote dialogue for the movie. After all, Countess Perverse was only one of a whopping fourteen films - eleven completed - several iconic Franco titles amongst them - and three which where never completed or released, that Franco directed in 1973.

Some food for thought - if Countess Perverse was shot back to back with Plaisir à trois, a movie Franco without receiving onscreen credit, edited and shot, then there’s a pretty good chance that he also worked the camera and the assisted the editing of Countess Perverse.
Returning readers, will know that I love old soundtracks – hence the stacks of vinyl in my home and mixtapes for your pleasure to the right. The Countess Perverse soundtrack is a gem; Jean Bernard Raiteaux and Olivier Bernard supply the movie with a fantastically cool fuzzy guitar progressive rock opera kind of track. at times reminds me of a aggressive take on Gene Moore’s theme from Carnival of Souls 1962. Just how often do you hear fuzzy guitar, flute and monkey screams in the same tune! Amazing stuff, someone (hint hint Finders Keepers) should get this out there as soon as possible.

Countess Perverse is visually stunning, psychotronic wonder of sleaze, mystery, dark humour and features wonderful performances from the cast. Romay may never have given a more vulnerable performance – although that could just be me being emotional at seeing her in HD - Vernon is superbly sinister and oozes evil. Choosing this movie is a no-brainer, it’s Franco at his finest (which both I and every DVD quote will tell you, of every Franco movie) Countess Perverse will perfectly fit into the void next to the Mondo Macabro releases of The Diabolical Dr. Z, Sinner and Lorna the Exorcist that you already have – or should have- standing in your shelf.
Countess Perverse is to be released on June 12th, by Mondo Macabro. You can preorder it on Amazon or pick it up from our friends at Diabolik DVD.

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