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.
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
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.
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.