There was a time in the early 60s when José Bénazéraf was being compared favourably to film-makers like Godard. Bénazéraf fell out of favour in the late 70s when he turned to outright sex films, and the stylish erotic thrillers of his early career are now sadly all but forgotten. And even more unfortunately they’re exceptionally difficult to find outside France where he still seems to retain at least some cult following. Sexus (L'Enfer dans la peau) dates from 1965 and it’s a good example of the strengths of Bénazéraf as a movie-maker.
It’s ostensibly a thriller about a kidnapping, but Bénazéraf has very little interest in conventional plotting. We know nothing about the criminal gang involved in the kidnapping, nor do we know anything about the young woman they’ve snatched (apart from the fact that her father is wealthy and that her name is Virginie). What we do know is that they’re holed up in an isolated house, it’s extremely hot, everyone is stressed and growing more stressed by the minute, and the presence of Virginie has unleashed almost unbearable sexual tensions. Everyone, including the girlfriend of one of the gang members, wants Virginie. The sexual tensions lead to murderous violence.
Bénazéraf was fascinated by the disruptive nature of eroticism, and by the possibilities this offered to shake things up, to change society, to liberate as well as to destroy. The miniature society of the gang is utterly destroyed by the eroticism awakened by Virginie, but for one of the criminals, Blackie, it brings an unexpected revelation. He has always lived by violence, lived by the gun, but he now discovers that “love is stronger than bullets.”
There’s a superb and very disturbing jazz soundtrack by the great Chet Baker, full of discordant percussion, and then there are the S&M-tinged erotic dancing night-club scenes. Like the night-club scenes in Jess Franco’s movies they do nothing to advance the plot but they do a great deal to create the atmosphere Bénazéraf is after. It’s an atmosphere of eroticism that is threatening but also oddly exhilarating, and manages to be perverse yet still positive. For Bénazéraf sex and politics were inextricably linked, and it’s clear that sex is the dominant element. The film is a heady brew of violence, jazz and sex combined with imagination and style. It’s also very very cool. It’s a 60s cool that still works today. I recommend this one very highly. It won’t be easy to find, and the available versions are dubbed and fullscreen and only obtainable on DVD-R, but it’s still very much worth seeing.