Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snakewoman (2005)

Snakewoman (2005) is one of my favorite latter-day Jess Franco efforts. Prior to my recent viewing of the film, with the intention of writing about it, I had read quite a bit of recent and not-so-recent criticism of Franco's cinema. Almost all of it noted flaws common in Franco's cinema, primarily his use of simple narratives, poorly-paced, sex scenes inserted as time filler, shoddy camerawork (all the more awful when the film was shot on video), and a continual recycling of older material (that is to say, Franco has made the same film more than once). My cinema tastes have always been in the most strict minority, and while I respect others' opinions, I still watch Franco's cinema with my own eyes. Having seen over a hundred of his films now, having lost count around that number, the only aspect of Franco's cinema which varies, for me, is the intensity. However, with this recent viewing of Snakewoman, for the first time in a while, I saw it influenced by the majority opinion.Oriana Balasz was a controversial, and now obscure, artist from the 1930s, whose work, primarily film, is closely-guarded by her descendants. Carla (Fata Morgana), an agent for a publishing house, has gone to the Balasz villa to persuade the family into selling the rights to her work. Carla arrives and meets a young woman (Carmen Montes) who claims to be Oriana. She refuses to sell the work to Carla. There is an inherent mystery in the premise of Snakewoman. One would intuitively begin to ask questions with the hopes that the subsequent narrative would, at the minimum, provide clues to the mystery. Such as: what was so controversial about her work? why would a family prefer to keep it hidden away from the world, despite lucrative financial offers? Those questions, perhaps, could be clouded with the irrational, supernatural themes: is the young woman really Oriana? how is she still young?
These questions are answered by Snakewoman's narrative, but I would really be pushing my limited ability at persuasive criticism to prove it. As a mystery, it fails. As a horror film, it fails.

It had been a while since longtime collaborator, Antonio Mayans (aka Robert Foster), had appeared in a Franco film. He appears as a doctor who is treating a young patient named Alpha (Christie Levin) who appears to be suffering from delusions--seeing a person who is not there (who is influencing her behavior). Lina Romay appears during the final act of Snakewoman as Carla's doctor. Subsequent to her rebuff by the Balasz family, Carla left the villa and spent three days in a daze. She could not remember what happened or where she went. Carla's doctor recommends that she spend a week recuperating at her isolated country resort. During the week that she spends there, Carla's publisher calls to tell her that he has acquired the rights to Oriana's work and thanks Carla.

All of these events really occur in Snakewoman, and to be truthful, I had never really noticed the salient details until this recent viewing. The plot is nonsensical and not coherent. Snakewoman has a very simple narrative that is not frustrating because it is hard to follow, but frustrating because it is so simple.
My previous viewings of Snakewoman and my feelings and thoughts about the film were quite different. What I would describe (and will now) is not proper criticism.Carmen Montes, as Oriana, is a gorgeous and seductive woman. Franco's first shot of her is a fake silhouette. That is to say, with his composition, he wants to outline Montes's svelte figure against a light backdrop; but Franco also wants to draw attention to the wonderfully provocative tattoo which surrounds her body--a large snake. The end result is dim light coming from the background and soft light upon the foreground. The opening scene is both lulling and soothing. Almost perfect atmosphere for an erotic film. Mayans's character has a very tenuous connection to the main plotline, and his patient, Levin's Alpha, has an even thinner connection. Franco later reveals who Alpha is seeing in her delusions and has the two meet. When these two characters meet, they fuck. For a long time. For a duration way beyond the threshold of most viewers. This is not a deterrent for Franco. In a humorous touch, Mayans's character is shown in crosscut during the scene, chanting in Latin. I have no idea why, but it almost seems as if Franco is making a religious joke on solemnity. With the Mayans crosscuts, Franco is breaking his solemnity for this erotic sequence, but don't worry, Franco is going to capture it all. I cannot tell if it's genuine, but in the background in several scenes of the villa, there is a promotional photo of Marlene Dietrich, taken during her heyday, and it is autographed. It is framed, and occasionally, Franco will begin his scene with a close-up on the photo, and as the scene plays out, the framed photo will blend into the background with the rest of the props and furniture in the villa. The Dietrich allusion has a tenuous connection to the character of Oriana. In later sequences, Franco shows Oriana's film work (in black-and-white). It's fairly explicit and not unlike Franco. However, Oriana's films do not appear like old stag films: they're framed and shot with a reverence and detail to light and dark.My math may be incorrect, but I believe Jess Franco was in his mid-seventies when he filmed Snakewoman. It is difficult not to see a connection between Oriana's work and Franco's own. What Montes's Oriana says about the fictional filmmaker is possibly applicable to Franco's cinema. During Oriana's first meeting with Carla, Oriana gives a very inappropriate speech about the culo. This speech makes me laugh, because I cannot think of another film maker, save Tinto Brass, so devoted to the female culo.

At the end of this long post, all that can really be said definitively is that Snakewoman is quintessential Franco: erotic, irreverent, both poetic and haunting, and unique.


Alex B. said...

Yes! You reviewed it! Nice one.
I find this film interesting.
Carmen Montes is captivating, I find her even more seductive in the recent Paula-Paula.
It can be painful and distracting reading others' thoughts on Jess. You don't know how well-acquainted with the Jess universe the reviewer is most of the time. Wider context of other Franco work helps one appreciate or at least tolerate certain things.

A.D. said...

Was that a jab at me in your first paragraph? Just kidding. This doesn't look like one I'll be rushing to see in my quest to familiarize myself with the director, but it's a great review nonetheless. I have two Franco movies lined up for this week so I'm looking forward to your feedback on those if you get a chance. Hope you're having a good weekend, man!

Hans A. said...

@A.D.--No, I wasn't referencing your reviews. No jabs, as I'm a pacifist.:) Just been reading a lot of criticism, here and there, like message boards and IMdB stuff. I'm glad your still watching Franco films, bro.

@Alex--First, I've got Paula-Paula and The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff discs recently and I'll be reviewing them both soon. In my experience, I don't try to persuade people that Franco deserves wider acclaim--I just celebrate a film maker that I love. Those who can appreciate him, I hope they enjoy what I write about him. Those who don't particularly care about him, usually don't come hunting for reviews of his work, here.

I appreciate the kind words. You two are in my tops as my favorite bloggers/film fans. I read everything that you guys write, and be cool.

Alex B. said...

...looking forward to those reviews!