Sunday, 20 September 2009

Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual (1983)

Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual was shot in 1983 in the Canary Islands, at the same time as Mansion of the Living Dead. Macumba Sexual is much closer in feel to his more delirious fever dream films of the 70s, and is by far the better movie.

Linda Romay (appearing in blonde wig under the name Candy Coster once again) is Alice, a real estate agent on holiday with her writer boyfriend. Alice has been troubled by recurring dreams about a mysterious black woman, strange erotic dreams in which this black woman leads around her two slaves (one male and one female) on leashes. The woman is the Princess Tara Obongo, a practitioner of macumba (closely related to voodoo). Alice finds herself ravished by the princess and her slaves. The dreams start to bleed into her real life. While making love with her boyfriend she imagines it’s the princess she is having sex with. More disturbingly, the boyfriend is also imagining making love with the princess. Does this princess have some strange power over both of them? Is it a shared delusion?

Things get more worrying for Alice when she gets a phone call from her boss. It appears that a certain Princess Tara Obongo wants to buy a house, and she has specifically requested that Alice should be the one to close the deal. Alice sets off on camel-back to find the princess’s residence, which turns out to be a kind of combination of villa, palace and African village - a wonderfully exotic and weird setting that is one of the highlights of the movie. It turns out that Tara does indeed possess two naked leashed slaves, and Alice is drawn into a maelstrom of sexual obsession and depraved lust.

She escapes, with some assistance from a very odd character (played by Jess Franco) who works at her hotel and who has been spending a considerable amount of time watching her nude sunbathing sessions. No sooner has Alice freed herself from this dangerous sexual passion than we see her boyfriend setting off on camel-back for the princess’s domains. Alice’s attempts to free him will have decidedly unexpected results.

This is one of those Franco movies where dream and reality intersect so completely that it is impossible to separate the two. I’ve always found Franco’s dream obsession movies to be his best work, and Macumba Sexual compares favourably with the best of them such as Doriana Grey and Venus in Furs. Franco doesn’t try to help us unravel the threads and determine which events are real and which are dreams. And that’s the strength of the movie. Dreams can be more real and more powerful than reality. And when you add eroticism to the mix, the power of dreams is increased even further.

Macumba Sexual is very erotic indeed. Tara’s power, and Alice’s obsessive dreams, are entirely sexual in nature. Tara is a priestess, or more likely a goddess, of sex. There’s a prodigious quantity of both nudity and sex, and the sex is about as explicit as you can get without crossing the line into hardcore, and at times it goes very very close to that line. But in Franco’s best movies the sex, although plentiful and graphic, is never really gratuitous - the movies are about sex and the sex is woven into the film so completely that without the sex you wouldn’t have a movie. So it is with Macumba Sexual. But it isn’t just sex, and thus the movie is not just porn - it has other layers to it. It’s ironic that mainstream directors can be feted for dealing explicitly with sexual subject matter in a heavy-handed and uninteresting way (as in Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) while exploitation directors like Franco who deal with similar subjects in a more provocative and interesting way are often dismissed as mere pornographers.

Ajita Wilson, who plays the Princess Tara, was a post-operative transsexual, which adds another layer of enigma to the movie. It’s a stunning performance. And if you want an actress who can portray sexual obsession in an absolutely convincing manner you really can’t go past Lina Romay. There are obvious parallels to Vampyros Lesbos as far as the plot is concerned, and also with a little-known but somewhat underrated 1970s Franco movie, Voodoo Passion.

It’s a beautifully filmed movie, with magnificent locations. Franco is in fine form visually and produces some mesmerising images. The scene with Tara leading her two slaves around is both kinky and mysterious. This is a movie for people who enjoy Jess Franco’s more extreme movies, the ones where he pushes his personal visions most forcefully and is least constrained by considerations of plot. The movie that are most unapologetically Jess Franco movies. If you fall into that category then you will find Macumba Sexual to be an unexpected late masterpiece.

The Region 2 DVD (labelled as Region 2 but it actually appears to be region-free) from Anchor Bay seems to be more or less uncut, and is presented in its correct aspect ratio and in a very attractive print which emphasises the vibrant colours. And it’s in Spanish with English sub-titles. No much cause for complaint here, but some extras would have been nice.

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