Wednesday, 17 September 2008

José Bénazéraf's Frustration (1971)

José Bénazéraf was once a major figure in French cinema, making movies that combined sex and politics with a great deal of style. There was a time when he was compared to film-makers like Godard. The rise of hardcore in the 70s more or less destroyed his career. He had nothing but contempt for what he saw as the crudity of the new type of sex movie, but the market for his brand of classy erotic horror and erotic thrillers spiced with politics had largely disappeared by the end of the decade.

Frustration, made in 1971 (and released in the US with the ludicrous and irrelevant title The Chambermaid's Dream despite its complete absence of chambermaids), has often been described as a softcore version of Polanki’s Repulsion. That’s a little unfair. Despite sharing the same basic framework other thematic similarities it’s a movie that can stand very well on its own.

Agnès (Elizabeth Teissier) and her doctor husband Michel (Michel Lemoine) live in an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the French countryside. Agnès’s sister Adelaide lives with them. It seems like a perfect little slice of comfortable middle-class domesticity. Unfortunately Adelaide is becoming increasingly disturbed. The sounds of Agnès and Michel having sex are unbearable to her. She is tortured not just by her own sexual frustration, but by her confused feelings of jealousy. Is she jealous of Agnès, or of Michel?
The arrival of a young German couple, stranded tourists, triggers even more disturbing fantasies.

She is obsessed by her sister, and although there are definite incestuous overtones to this obsession, it’s not quite as simple as that. It seem to be more of a problem of over-identification, an inability to separate her own personality from that of her sister, a collapsing of the boundaries that define her own personality. She begins to live more an more in a world of lurid sexual fantasies, with increasingly strongly sado-masochistic elements. There’s a memorable scene in which she imagines herself in a long corridor with dozens of doors. Behind every door she sees Agnès and Michel making love. Finally she locks herself behind a door, and seeks release by pleasuring herself, although there seems to be little genuine pleasure in it for her.

Janine Reynaud, who was so intriguing in Jess Franco’s superb Succubus, gives a great performance as Adelaide. There’s a fair amount of sex and nudity, all of which are absolutely integral to the film. Adelaide’s fevered sado-masochistic fantasies are not gratuitous but are crucial in charting the progress of her mental disintegration through shame and guilt combined with a lack of any normal sexual outlet. This is true erotic horror, in which both elements are equally important. Bénazéraf saw sex as a force that could shatter the complacencies of self-satisfied middle-class conventionality and morality, and the movie is a perfect example of his theories put into practice.

It’s a movie that is provocative, thought-provoking, erotic and entertaining, and very stylish. Bénazéraf is clearly a movie-maker who deserves to be rediscovered.

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