Appreciating the work of Jesus Franco poses multiple challenges. The first is that his filmography is massive, including some genres that certain viewers refuse to watch (i.e. porn films and hardcore variants of several of his films). The other is that Franco’s devil-may-care filmmaking methods, combined with low budgets and other production hassles, result in a body of work that even his devoted fans will admit varies wildly in quality from film to film.
That said, the biggest challenge in appreciating Franco’s work is his free-spirited refusal to play by the rules of conventional celluloid narrative. Fans often compare his approach to filmmaking to the methodology of your more experimental jazz musicians: he riffs outside of formula concerns, refuses to be confined by structure, alternates between recognizable patterns or concepts and indulging in pure free association, focuses on pleasing himself over pleasing the audience and is prone to coming up with endless variations on a set of pet themes. Shining Sex is a good example of the aforementioned list of musical tendencies running free to create something best described as a debauched tone poem.
Shining Sex starts like a pure-blooded sexploitation item, with nightclub performer Cynthia (Franco muse Lina Romay) performing a long and anatomically explicit strip routine before being summoned by a pair of well-heeled swingers, Alpha (Eveline Scott) and her lover/assistant Andros (Raymond Hardy). Cynthia thinks they simply want sex but soon finds she has become a slave to them, changing the film into a weird softcore/sci-fi hybrid where the otherworldly duo force Cynthia to perform cosmic seduction/executions on their enemies. Meanwhile, the mystically inclined Dr. Seward (Franco) has become telepathically aware of these events and tries to find Cynthia before it’s too late.
If the above synopsis sounds quirky, the way it plays out challenges the viewer’s senses. Franco’s directorial point-of-view is steeped in voyeurism: the first half-hour is largely devoted to the camera exploring every corner of Romay’s body in both strip routines and sexual situations. In trademark Franco style, there are frequent slow-zooms into an extreme close-up of her groin. Romay not only plays along with this but gleefully flaunts her body, often to a gynecological degree. They are the perfect storm of director and star, the compulsive voyeur united with the unquenchable exhibitionist in a pact where they endlessly indulge each other’s most carnal urges.
As the indoor fireworks commence, Franco begins to sneak in the weird elements: Scott and Hardy give detached, eccentric performances that test the viewer’s perception of what’s happening (Scott’s behavior in the sex scenes must be seen to be believed). After the seduction of Cynthia is complete, the weird elements take equal footing with the sexual material: soon our heroine is wandering barren, isolated stretches of Euro cityscape and countryside while having periodic feverish couplings with other actors that expire upon climax. We discover the alien origins of the villainous duo as well as Cynthia experiencing physical side-effects of her trance that suggest a porn version of Cronenbergian body horror. It all builds to an ending that suggests a porn filmmaker emulating gothic horror and weirdo sci-fi at the same time.
The end result is too odd and languid for the raincoat crowd despite its almost-hardcore sex scenes but also too minimalist, odd and perverse for the sci-fi crowd. That said, Shining Sex offers a barrage of strange delights for those who can tune in to Franco’s obscure wavelength. He has an amazing knack for creating a distinctive atmosphere and look utilizing a tiny amount of settings (mainly futuristic Euro-architecture) and a handful of players. Though obviously filmed quickly and in an improvisational manner, there are a number of stunning compositions and an interesting use of the color green as a recurring visual motif. If you surrender to Franco’s whims, the film can give you the kind of woozy narcotic feeling experienced by its heroine, particularly if viewed late at night.
Those already accustomed to Franco’s style get an additional bonus in the form of familiar narrative elements from his past that he recycles and reinterprets here. The concept of a vengeful killer using a slave to commit murder by proxy dates back to mid-’60s Franco films like The Diabolical Dr. Z. Franco lifted the character name of Dr. Seward from Dracula and had been using the character since the early ’70s in different films, including his famous Vampyros Lesbos. Having Romay play a seductress who merges sex with murder was also a key element of The Female Vampire. Cementing the self-referential feel is Franco’s appearance here as a character bedeviled by lusty, eccentric visions that consume his being without him being able to control their flow. Watching this film is like watching Franco hold up multiple mirrors to reflect himself and his cinematic past.
Thus, Shining Sex is an item for very particular tastes, one likely to mystify those outside of Francophile circles… but no one ever combined extreme voyeurism and off-the-cuff surrealism the way Franco did. Watching this film is like entering the dimension the film’s villains come from. If that sounds like a good time, you’ll enjoy getting overstimulated by this film.
Blu-Ray Notes: this was a bootleg item until Severin Films recently rescued it for a lavish blu-ray release. Despite some element issues, the transfer is pretty impressive in terms of clarity and color (the English dub is the sole audio choice here). There are also plentiful supplements, a few including the thoughtful Franco expert Stephen Thrower, and an eye-popping reel of hardcore footage that shows just how committed Romay was to her work. If you track down the limited pressing 1st edition, you also get a bonus CD of trance-inducing soundtrack instrumentals from this and other films by Daniel J. White. If you’ve got a heart of Eurosleaze, you need to track this one down.