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Vampyros Lesbos: A Whole New Level of Film Snobbery?

May 17, 2012 2 comments

Sexploitrashorror!

I found this quote relating to the status of Jess Franco’s (reasonably) well known Euro-arthouse sexploitation flick, Vampyros Lesbos, buried on an IMDB message board:

This is a movie that film snobs will claim to like because of it’s “substance” Bull crap. This movie is just an attempt at titalation[sic] that falls flat on it’s face.”

It’s an interesting movie to watch because I was consciously aware of my own attitudes towards it as I was watching, given that I’m a male in a male-oriented society who enjoys gazing on pretty naked women a lot more than he probably should.. It’s probably as inevitable that any movie buff is going to eventually run into the work of Jesus Franco at some point as s/he is Russ Meyer, but equally as unlikely that the casual film viewer is going to encounter it unless – as I did when I was 16/17 – they happen to watch snippets on a late-night cable channel, inevitably getting bored when the realities of a title as promisingly titillating as “Vampyros Lesbos” can’t compare to the wondrous imagery it conjures within the imagination (pornography, soft or hardcore rarely can). Softcore sexploitation movies exist on the fringes of movie appreciation, some critics unfairly dismissing them as hollow and trashy, others overpraising them as beautiful, artistic and masterful. The above quote is a little strange since I’m not sure that there’s a cult of film snobbery around Franco’s work that’s remotely equivalent to Welles or Hitchcock and frankly I’ve never personally spoken to another film buff who rated Vampyros Lesbos as one of their favourite movies (as a contrast, Russ Meyer often gets a nod). Franco and Europeon Sexploitation movies do have a reasonable body of written work devoted to them now and interest is growing all the time as genre movies – beyond Hitchcock – become acceptable as art, but it remains a comparatively niche interest. Notably Quentin Tarantino is often cited as a Jess Franco fan and it’s not difficult to see why his movies appeal to his sensibilities.

It’s certainly true that Vampyros Lesbos does set out to titillate the viewer, so in that sense this quote is correct, but the writer also dismisses out of hand the idea that sexual titillation or titillating movies can be artistic or worthwhile on any level. It’s a sad fact that most movies featuring a level of eroticism tend to stoop to the lowest common denominator, descending to the depths of dull, routine, uninteresting film-making in order to satisfy the base desires of the market it wishes to exploit.(not that different from Hollywood then!) It’s very rare that I’ve bothered or been able to watch through a work of pornography in its entirety, even the more rated examples tend to be cinematic driftwood, and yet I didn’t find myself bored at all by Vampyros Lesbos, so it must have been doing something right to justify its position as a movie with some kind of substance beyond the titillating surface gloss. It’s probably not a “great” movie in the traditional sense of the word, it’s scrappy, messy, over-exuberant, a little silly and almost entirely without narrative sense or tension. It’s these faults that lead those looking for titillation only to think it a stupid movie because it’s a compelling central narrative that most casual movie fans are looking for. If anything, any attempt to watch Vampyros Lesbos should be made in the spirit of watching a David Lynch movie, only it doesn’t remotely come close to capturing the sense or spirit of Lynch’s twisted, bizarre dream-logic worlds.(Not that a movie made years before Eraserhead, from another culture, would be trying to, of course). But there’s a compelling consistency about the themes and imagery used in the movie that tie what we’re seeing together, and scenes of lesbian eroticism make sense within the context of the film, they’re not just thrown out there as the central focus of the viewing experience. They’re just a part of it.

Franco’s image of lesbianism in the movie ultimately falls within traditional boundaries . “lesbianism is titillating for men, but a little bit intimidating in reality” The central figure, the Countess Nadine – a lesbian who has turned from men, loathing them all because a man raped her – is a threat to the patriarchal society in which, lureing away Linda from her otherwise loving boyfriend with promises of lesbian lust and sexual abandonment. Ultimately her allure is rejected, she is killed and the threat contained, the danger of lesbianism rejected. I’ve always found it strange how men can both fantasise about and be afraid of lesbian love and this film clearly encapsulates this very classically masculine dilemma (which, isn’t to say that many women aren’t threatened by lesbianism either, or titillated by it). Yet, within the bounds of this framework, Franco still manages to question our assumptions towards what we’re seeing, driving the movie beyond the bounds of pornography, titillation and misogyny into interesting explorative areas.

The most intriguing – and erotic – moment in the movie is actually a reprise of a sequence that opens the movie. Repeating a scene that the viewer has already seen is in itself an unusual structural device, particularly within a trashy sexploitation flick, and so it’s quite clear that Franco’s intentions with this particular moment go beyond the expected and the predictable. The Vampire countess of the piece also happens to be a part-time strip-show dancer (of course! No, it’s never really explained!) and as the movie opens we see her dancing erotically with her partner, a static, lifeless model we wouldn’t believe real until she eventually moves, responding to the erotic caresses of the Countess Nadine. The intent of the opening scene is not, as it initially seems, just to show skin to the audience, but also for the audience to understand her erotic allure that Nadine has for Linda – a member of the audience – and why she is compelled to visit her on her island in ways that go beyond the classic Dracula “estate management” plot. Soledad Miranda’s performance is erotically alluring and the balance between stripshow and live sex show intriguingly maintained.

When the routine is repeated later in the film it initially feels gratuitous but it actually allow for the layers of complexity to be peeled back and gives the viewer an opportunity to understand the importance of this scene. One cannot but watch a scene such as this without thinking of Laura Mulvey’s arguments concerning the male gaze. That the sequence opens with Soledad Miranda studying her gaze in a mirror before writhing around in front of it seems particularly relevant:

 “A male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror. The character in the story can make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator, just as the image in the mirror was more in control of motor coordination. In contrast to woman as icon, the active male figure (the ego ideal of the identification process) demands a three-dimensional space corresponding to that of the mirror-recognition in which the alienated subject internalised his own representation of this imaginary existence. He is a figure in a landscape. Here the function of film is to reproduce as accurately as possible the so-called natural conditions of human perception. Camera technology (as exemplified by deep focus in particular) and camera movements (determined by the action of the protagonist), combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space. The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action.”1

Stop gazing at yourself in the mirror, you should be gazing at your audience…

Again, Vampyros Lesbos was made before Mulvey wrote this article, but it’s striking how cleverly this sequence questions and reconstructs Mulvey’s psychoanalytic assumptions regarding the male gaze in cinema. Certainly the gaze of the camera in this movie is that of the male and it is squarely on the female throughout, and yet, whilst the narrative of the movie conforms to that male gaze regarding lesbianism this repeated scene also asks us to question the veracity of that very gaze by having Nadine self-consciously partake in her own gaze upon herself and to ultimately show her control of it. Thus, there are several levels of gaze within this scene. The audience of the movie watching the sex-show who cannot but be hyper-aware that this scene is staged for them and not the second level, the audience within the movie who are actually watching the live sex-show (whom the camera highlights by intermittently cuts back and forth to). The rhythmic, enticing soundtrack (now considered “retro, but actually quite sultry and superb) the lighting and camera angles all markedly point out the impossibility of this scene being nearly as erotic in the flesh as it is edited through the eyes of a camera lens. Finally, there’s Nadine herself consciously watching herself in her own show. It’s the existence of this level that questions the motivations of those other viewers.

If the mirror highlights her own self-consciousness, her awareness of both her own sexuality and her allure for the multiple audiences watching her, the other trappings of the show are designed to mock their expectations. As Nadine undresses she places her clothes back onto the naked doll-like figure in front of her, highlighting the female status as sexual plaything. An obvious symbol, the doll-girl is a helpless, ineffectual part of the show there to be used as seen fit by both her partner – now, as a sexually aware female, in a position of power – and also as a piece of lesbian titillation for her audience. The big twist reveal as the sequence is re-played is that after initially kissing and caressing the girl for her audiences, Nadine lays her down helpless and rips out her throat for all to see. The audience clap politely as they would any show. The movie audience responses probably range from joy at the kill to frustration that there’ll be no lesbian sex, having been aroused by the eroticism of the dance. It’s an amazing twist, the performer, the gazed-upon , is thoroughly in control of the gaze, undermining and frustrating their expectations.

The movie is not this intelligent throughout, but it shows a level of self-awareness and more importantly an imagination and interest in the potential of cinema way beyond a casual viewer’s expectations regarding softcore titillation, beyond the natural assumptions made by the male gaze itself. I did like the film because of its substance. If it’s only sporadically intelligent, at its worst it is thoroughly well made. With sparse dialogue and haunting imagery, the movie is driven by its compelling soundtrack and a beguiling performance from lead actress Soledad Miranda, and its a perfect example of why I often seek out the unusual, the sordid and movies that are made on the fringes of popular culture. It’s also a fantastic example of how female representations in cinema can surprise you in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely ways.

1Mulvey, Laura. “ Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema (accessed May 2012), 1975

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