Tuesday 17 February 2009

Venus in Furs (1967)

In 1967 sexploitation producer Lou Campa hired Joe Marzano to work on a bizarre little movie called Cool It, Baby. The movie did quite well, and Campa was sufficiently impressed to give Marzano $10,000 to make another sexploitation pic. Marzano took the money and went away and made Venus in Furs, which was undoubtedly not at all the sort of movie Campa had in mind! It is in fact an art film, admittedly an art film about sex, but it’s very much an art film.

It bears some similarities to the movies that Marzano’s friend Paul Morrissey was making for Andy Warhol at the time, although Venus in Furs is infinitely more surreal. The opening titles state that it was suggested by, rather than based on, the classic novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch ’s classic novel (the word masochism derives from the sexual fixations recounted in this book), which seems fair enough. It’s a strange but oddly engrossing mix of von Sacher-Masoch, Freud and surrealism.

A rather introverted and very bookish man who works at a shoe store is obsessed by von Sacher-Masoch’s novel. He’s also obsessed by women’s shoes and by fantasies of being dominated by women. He mets a woman named Marna, who takes him away to a strange house inhabited by an assortment of people who spend their time indulging their unusual sexual interests (which involve things like exercise bikes, chess and ping pong). By this time the movie has taken on a distinctly dream-like quality. The man wanders from room to room, each room containing two or more people engaged in activities that seem like sexual fantasies seen through a haze of drugs. My favourite was the fetish that involves a hip bath, a saucer and a jug of milk.

He finds a book of photographs which obviously disturb him, although we don’t know what the book contains. There are also readings of children’s stories, and finally the climactic orgy scene. The orgy scene is again more disturbing than erotic, more like a fever dream. There’s a man in drag dancing with a woman. There’s a woman lying on the floor fully clothed while another woman obsessively deals playing cards onto her back. There are various writhing couples, all fully clothed. This was common enough in 1960s sexploitation movies and usually looks silly, but in this case it adds to the unsettling quality of the film. The couples are driven by something, but it doesn’t appear to be sex. There’s a peculiar unerotic quality to the eroticism, a kind of thwarted sterile quality. The plot doesn’t really go anywhere, but that seems more of a strength than a weakness, contributing to the feeling of events moving in a futile circular manner like endlessly recycled dream images.

Barbara Ellen (who co-wrote the script) plays Marna, and she may now be my favourite sexploitation actress. She plays Marna in a delightfully perverse way, and also plays the goddess Venus in the opening sequence. There’s very little nudity and no graphic sex, but the movie still manages to be kinky in a strangely non-sexual sexual way. The film is in constant danger of taking itself too seriously, but Marzano comes up with enough striking and disquieting images to justify its pretensions to being a genuine art film.

This was truly the golden age of American sexploitation, when a director could make a feature film such as this for $10,000 and be allowed to follow their own private obsessions wherever they happened to take them and end up with fantastically weird little gems such as this. It’s released on DVD by Something Weird, and in common with most of their releases the black-and-white cinematography looks absolutely gorgeous, as if it had been filmed yesterday. Highly recommended for devotees of cinematic strangeness.

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