Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Devil's Island Lovers (1974)

Devil's Island Lovers (Los amantes de la isla del diablo, also released as Quartier de femmes) is a slight variation on the usual Jess Franco women-in-prison movie. It’s more of a couple-in-prison film, and it’s one of his most overtly political statements.

All of Franco’s women-in-prison movies have at least some political sub-text, but this one is a very direct attack on Franco’s Spain, and on fascism in general.

It’s set in an unnamed South American country, which is clearly standing in for Spain. As it opens the local provincial governor, a man renowned for his cruelty, is dying. He feels a desparate need to seek forgiveness for his many sins, but for one in particular - his part in condemning an innocent young couple to imprisonment on a dreaded prison island. His mistress had been trying for some time to get her godson Raymond into the sack with her, and when he rejected her advances se determined to seek revenge. And not just on her godson, but also on the woman he loves, Beatriz. As it happens both Raymond and Beatriz are involved in anti-government political activism so framing them isn’t too difficult, especially with the governor’s assistance.

Raymond finds himself in the men’s prison. Interestingly, the warden (played by Howard Vernon) isn’t portrayed as a sadist. He’s merely a willing tool of the system. The warden of the women’s prison is another matter. Mrs Cardel is most definitely a sadist, and a lesbian. Beatriz is going to need a protector in order to survive, and she finds one in the ambiguous figure of Rosa. Rosa is the warden’s pet, and gets special treatment by informing on the other prisoners and by offering her sexual favours to the guards (and probably also to Mrs Cardel).

Rosa takes a liking to Beatriz, a liking that is partly based on sexual attraction (Rosa prefers women sexually) but that goes beyond mere sex. Rosa is no monster. She is aware of the unsavoury nature of the things she has done to survive, and Beatriz’s purity and innocence fill her with a desire to do some good for another human being. Of course Beatriz’s purity and innocence also fill her with a desire to have sex with her, but Rosa’s motives are obviously genuinely mixed. Rosa decides she will help Raymond and Beatriz to escape, because she believes they are innocent, and because she believes they are in love.

This is one of the many Franco movies of the early 70s that existed in several different cuts. The Tartan DVD release presents the Spanish “clothed” version which is very tame indeed, but it also includes many alternative scenes from the much raunchier French cut, Quartier de femmes (Women’s Quarters. What’s interesting is that the alternative scenes don’t simply add a bit more violence and a lot more sex and nudity, they also add some very important material relating to the characters. They make Rosa a more important and also a more complex and sympathetic character, and they add some important nuances to the Rosa-Beatriz relationship. The sex scene between Rosa and Beatriz is very ambiguous. Is Beatriz doing it simply because Rosa might help her to be reunited with Raymond? Does she really care about Rosa (it seem that she probably does, up to a point at least)? Or is she just in need of any human contact?

Judging by the alternative scenes this is a case where the raunchier version looks like it’s probably the superior version, but alas it’s not in great condition, which is undoubtedly why Tartan went with the Spanish version.
This is one of Franco’s more straightforward films in terms of plot. There’s a connected narrative. On the other hand it has surprisingly complex characterisations. And it’s typical of Franco to use the most despised and disreputable of all exploitation genres, the women-in-prison movie, to make one of his most serious political films. It’s also one of his bleakest and most cynical films (which I think confirms my suspicion that it’s very much a film about his Spanish homeland).

Howard Vernon has very little to do, but in his brief screen time he gives us a memorable portrait of the kind of person who allows fascism to flourish - a man who will follow orders and carry out the law without any regard for whether the law is just or not. Jess Franco’s women-in-prison movies feature a galaxy of evil sadistic female prison wardens, and while Dyanne Thorne in Ilsa, the Wicked Warden is hard to beat, I think Rosa Palomar in Devil's Island Lovers may be the most chilling of them all. Dennis Price is always good value and in this film he’s the idealistic but alcoholic defence attorney who remains obsessed by the case of Beatriz and Raymond. Is he motivated by idealism, or by a desire to find some kind of personal redemption?

Redemption is in fact a major theme of this movie. Seeing it I can’t help wondering is Jess Franco was a bit of a Graham Greene fan. Dennis Price’s character is very Graham Greene.

This film doesn’t have the extravagant visual style that characterises Franco’s best movies, but it packs quite an emotional punch. Not quite first-rank Franco, but definitely worth seeing.

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