Look–we’ve all got them. Call them “chick flicks” or the male equivalent thereof, there are films of a nature that make them utterly unappetizing to our domestic partners but which sing their siren song to us, beckoning us to view their forbidden excellence when disapproving eyes are out of range. My own brand of “chick flick” is the kind of hazy, languorous, nudity-packed kink-tragedy produced Continentally during the 1970s. I know that for many, the long shots of Significant Glances and the injection of La Philosophie dans le boudoir adds up to boredom of the most excruciating sort, but for me, it’s pure bliss. A master of the form, director Jess Franco delivers the titillating goods once again in 1970’s “Eugenie de Sade.”
Based loosely on a tale by that venerable smut peddler the Marquis de Sade, “Eugenie de Franval”
(available to read here
, if’n you’re curious), “Eugenie de Sade”
details an affair between a young woman and her stepfather (a character intended to be her biological father, but changed during script revisions in foresight of censorship rules) that descends into murder, madness and revenge (as these things do). Albert Radeck (played with oily sinisterness by Paul Muller, who LOOKS like a de Sade heavy) is an author and critic whose body of work is dedicated to such taboo topics as black magic and explicit erotic literature, and when he discovers that his stepdaughter Eugenie (whose mother died days after her birth under mysterious circumstances) has been surreptitiously reading forbidden volumes from his collection, he encourages her pursuits. Eugenie is whipped up into quite a froth by her newfound reading material, and her awakened sensuality doesn’t go unnoticed by Dear Old Stepdad. There’s a mutuality of desire in their eventual coupling–while Eugenie may be naive, she is not a victim. Together, the couple sets out on a series of eroticized murders, targeting beautiful young women until Albert decides it’s time to take on yet more challenging game in the person of jazz trumpeter Paul. Eugenie’s seduction of Paul has unforseen consequences, and when she begins to fall in love with him, Albert’s jealousy flames out of control, leading to the inevitable tragic ending.
All this would have been enough to keep me glued to my seat (hush, you dirty-minded thing, you!) and any movie that opens with close-up girlkissing is already a winner in MY book, but there’s an abundance of texture here that makes the film special. The dazzle of “Eugenie de Sade” doesn’t stem from flashy cinematography or surrealist setpieces, but directly from the magnetic screen presence of actress Soledad Miranda (credited as Susan Korday) in the title role. A dancer from a very young age, her screen presence evolved into a captivating, erotic naturalism, and there’s no doubt in my mind that–had she not been killed at age 27 shortly after completing this film–she would have gone on to an even more remarkable career. Miranda takes what could have been a scanty role as an S&M Lolita and invests the character with an unconscious sexiness that’s gorgeous to watch. Her signature pose throughout the film–her legs tucked up under her chin, silently watching and listening–evolves from schoolgirl shyness to sensual lounging to a predatory perching over the course of the film. It doesn’t hurt that Franco attires his star in an array of drool-worthy thigh high boots, or that Eugenie exhibits a noteworthy aversion to pants.
The sex scenes are filmed with an unblushing literalism, eschewing soft-focus in favor of sometimes-awkward but authentic-looking fleshiness. Sure, I could’ve done without shots of Paul Muller’s bum during his major sex scene with Soledad Miranda, but this choice to show sex in a realistic manner is an honest one, and the ultra-close-ups on Miranda’s parted lips and half-lidded eyes go a long way towards erasing the memories of man-bum.
Franco himself appears in a clever role as author Attila Tanner (dubbed with a giggle-worthy basso voice), who sates his fascination with Albert and Eugenie by following them and eventually revealing that he is aware of their murderous activities. This third-wall-busting turn as actor is a marvelous addition to the storyline–is Tanner complicit in the activities of the main characters? Is he omniscient in some way? It’s a mysterious and–yes–humorous addition to the film.
There’s symbolism peppered throughout the film, ranging from subtle to blatant. In the library where Eugenie first encounters the erotic literature, she is surrounded by paintings of flowers, evocative of a blooming into womanhood or perhaps of the marriage ceremony. There’s a bittersweet moment towards the end of the film, where Eugenie confesses her father’s plot to Paul, and the actors are framed by images of idealized womanhood and manhood–she by a larger-than-life pinup and he by a photo of his political idol, Che Guevara.
The visual world of this film is consistent, as it is in other examples of Franco’s best work. The color palate here is black, white, and a searing red that is used as contrast during dramatic sequences. It’s winter and the bleak backdrop of postwar Berlin enhances the melancholy of the tale. Eugenie and Albert are almost always clad in black, except for when they commit their first murder and don absolutely outrageous-and-therefore-AWESOME red disguises. A red light is employed during the signature Jess Franco Nightclub Scenes, which bookend the first murder and also serve as the first introduction of Eugenie to Paul. Significant Things go down in Franco’s nightclubs!
“Eugenie de Sade” has the kind of dreamy narrative and symbolism that Franco incorporates into his best work, and stands as a remarkable document to the talent and beauty of Soledad Miranda. Those seeking explicit BDSM or a fast-cracking plot should look elsewhere, but fans of the prolific and challenging director that is Jess Franco will be delighted.