Sunday, January 30, 2011

DVD Review: Jess Franco's PAULA-PAULA (2010)

In a brief interview on Intervsion Picture Corp.'s recent release of Jess Franco's 2010 direct-to-DVD effort Paula-Paula, the director opines that this flick is perhaps the "weirdest" movie he has ever made. Anyone familiar with the trash auteur's prodigious output will understand just what a bold statement that is; sadly, after watching the piece, they will also be forced to wonder whether that claim is evidence that Franco has finally lost whatever marbles he still had. Designated by its own credits as "An Audio-Visual Experience by Jess Franco"--rather than, you know, a movie--Paula-Paula is about as weird as your average student film, and about as technically proficient. It's certainly nowhere nearly as strange as Franco's periodically brilliant 70s output, and partakes of little of the visual poetry and narrative oddness of even his most maligned trash quickies. It's perhaps not entirely without interesting aspects, but taken as a whole it's a disappointing effort that even the director's most ardent admirers might have trouble championing.

Claiming to be based on Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the "experience" centers around beautiful but disturbed Paula (Carmen Montes), committed to a mental institution after murdering--or did she?--her friend/lover, also named Paula (Paula Davis). Things get confusing, though, as it's not entirely clear whether this second Paula actually exists, or is the Hyde-like manifestation of Paula-Prime's id. (Franco's life-partner and muse Lina Romay makes a brief appearance as the head of the institution.) As near as I can figure, most of the movie takes place in the disturbed woman's mind, as she remembers/daydreams making love to Paula-2 at great length, and now and then gyrates nude on an exercise machine.

And that's about it. Really.

Carmen Montes as Paula-Prime

Let's get to the good stuff first--Franco dedicates Paula-Paula to his longtime friend Friederich Gulda. A talented pianist and composer of both classical music and jazz, Gulda provided the score for my favorite Franco flick, the phantasmagorical and fascinating Succubus (1969). When Gulda passed away in 2000, Franco inherited many of his friend's unpublished jazz compositions. It is this music that Jess builds Paula-Paula around, and I have to say, I thought it was pretty great--in fact, I would readily buy a soundtrack recording, and put it on regular background rotation. If you like 60s-style jazz, I wager you'll dig it too. Also, while not a great actress (though to be fair she's not given much to do here), Montes has a beautiful figure reminiscent of the best-remembered 70s Eurotrash screen queens. Davis is a more modern beauty, with tattoos and piercings aplenty, which I guess is supposed to differentiate her from her alter-ego. Still, the women are as easy on the eyes as the music is on the ears.

Tres Veces
Other than that--hoo boy. The movie was clearly filmed in someone's apartment--probably the same one where Jess holds court on the DVD interview segments. Set lights and reflecting screens are clearly visible in frame throughout, and while Jess might argue this is to expose the artificiality of the medium or some such, it comes off as just sloppy. In fact the whole thing--camera angles, sets, blocking--looks shockingly amatuerish; and depressingly so, since we know the man to be capable of much better. Add to that the fact there's almost no narrative--after the brief set-up, it's an hour of slow-motion nudity and boring video effects--and it's even harder than usual to figure out what Jess might have been thinking.

Perhaps Franco calls this an "experience" rather than a movie because he didn't intend to tell a story. Played as a long-form music video coupling Gulda's excellent jazz with Franco's own obsession with the nude female form, maybe it'll work for some viewers. And to be fair, with its fixation on nude, writhing women and cavalier attitude toward plot, I was reminded periodically of Jess's famous 1973 film Female Vampire (aka Erotic Kill), which was less about vampirism than about Lina Romay's crotch. I didn't particularly enjoy that one either, as praised as it often is by others, so maybe some viewers will find things to like here. In any event, I'm pleased to know that, old and decrepit as he is, Jess can still get beautiful young women to disrobe for him and his tireless camera eye. But unfortunately that vicarious pleasure doesn't translate to a compelling audio-visual experience, at least for me.

Lina Romay tries unsuccessfully to obscure a set light.

DVD extras include three short interviews with Franco, and it has to be said, he looks BAD--palsied, chainsmoking as usual, and sometimes lying down on his couch in mid-sentence or else wracked by coughing fits. But he's still fascinating to listen to, particularly when he talks about the current state of the Spanish film industry and his views on the perceived prejudice against young people and especially women who want to make films. His introduction and discussion of Paula-Paula are less interesting, in my opinion, though it is telling that he claims to enjoy this type of movie-making because it "allows me to work quickly." Franco's always had more ideas than time or money to implement them, sometimes famously abandoning movies in mid-production to rush off and film something else, so I can see why the super-speed of video might appeal. And then again, maybe he's rushing to get as many out on film in whatever form as possible before the Reaper comes knocking. I can't fault him for that, but I just wish the result was better.

1.5 Thumbs

Nota bene: the film aside, Intervision put together a great DVD, and has also recently released Franco's 1973 film The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff, which the Duke snatched up for review and which, one hopes, is more representative of the Franco we know and sometimes love. So I'll look forward to hearing what His Prurience has to say about that one!

Can't argue there


Samuel Wilson said...

Strange to say, your review reminded me of a documentary I saw about the last years of Orson Welles, a hero and onetime employer of Franco's and the many projects he started and had to abandon. Clips from these late efforts often look heartbreakingly amateurish as Welles could finally rely only on himself, Gary Graver and Oja Kador. The video age has given Franco the solution to Welles's troubles, and one can only imagine what Orson would have done with such equipment -- if he didn't have that phobia about finishing things that some attribute to him. As for Franco, something like Paula-Paula is an acid test for auteurists, and I recall reading Tim Lucas's heroic struggle to salvage something from it in the pages of Video Watchdog. But if an auteurist viewpoint enhances anyone's appreciation of a movie, I suppose it must be a good thing -- auteurism, that is, not the movie, necessarily.

dfordoom said...

Samuel, I actually think Orson Welles' best-ever film was the last one he ever made, F for Fake. But I know a lot of people don't like late Welles.

dfordoom said...

Vicar, I loved Female Vampire, so maybe I'll like Paula-Paula? Mind you, I loved Doriana Gray as well, so I'm not sure what that says about me!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel--Franco mentions Orson Welles several times in the interviews on the disc, but then he almost always does that. :) It's a maxim that working within restrictions lends some creative types a structure that is necessary to keep them focused and helps them produce at their best; I believe Franco is definitely one of these. If he had more restrictions on this one--budget, filmstock availability, producers' demands, the need to turn a profit for investors--the end result might have perforce been sharper. Of course sometimes the absolute removal of all restriction leads to some startling art, and that may yet happen for Jess--but I'm sad to say it didn't here, at least imo.

@dfordoom--It's entirely possible you'd enjoy P-P a lot more than I did--but be warned, compared to this one, FEMALE VAMPIRE is ponderously plot-heavy. :P I haven't seen DORIANA GRAY...wondering now if I should? :)

dfordoom said...

Vicar, Doriana Gray is definitely one for fans of Lina Romay's lady parts. And this one is definitely hardcore porn. It's one of a handful of movies that demonstrate that hardcore porn and art really can mix. It's a strange, beautiful, disturbing and haunting movie. Romay gives one of her best performances. It has a stronger narrative drive than Female Vampire and as with that film the sex is really central to the movie.

Romay plays two sisters, both of whose lives are dominated by sex. One seeks sex insatiably but cannot feel anything, the other feels too much.

The German VIP DVD (which includes both the English dub and a sub-titled German soundtrack) is extremely hard to find but it's worth the effort. I think it's Franco's masterpiece. Certainly a movie than no self-respecting fan of eurosleaze can afford to miss.

Samuel Wilson said...

d, I actually like F for Fake a lot as well, but some of the footage shown in that documentary (I believe it's called One Man Band and is included with the Criterion edition of F)is just sad. BTW, Doriana Gray sounds pretty interesting from your account.

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