‘People call me an amateur and I say thank-you very much, for it means in the true sense of the word I am a real lover of film’… Jess Franco. Quoted from Eurotika- Diabolical Mr Franco (1999) (documentary, aired on Channel 4 UK)- check link at the bottom of this article to watch the entire programme.
What can I say but this piece has been a long time coming. Week after week I have been promising to finish it but I must admit every time I attempted it I hit a wall. Just how do you write about one of the most prolific filmmakers of all time and do it any justice? It has been said to understand one Jess Franco film you have to watch them all, and with a filmography which ranges from 180-200+ (speculations to the true number are rife as there have been so many releases under alternate titles, and different cuts) that is no mean feat. Maverick, hack, exploitation king, auteur, amateur, genius, art house, low brow, trash, B-movie legend, are many of the phrases to describe Jess and his work. Only two things are certain firstly he definitely was a man who could polarize opinion, and secondly if nothing more you have to admire his work ethic. But then Jess loved what he did, a true vocation which drove him to work constantly at break neck pace for most of his career which spanned over 54 years. Researching Jess Franco for this piece has certainly been an interesting and exciting journey. So without further ado I present my labour of love, A Tribute to Jess Franco…
Born Jesus Franco Manera in Madrid in 1930 as the youngest of 11 children, it seemed that Jess Franco would always end up in cinema. Jess is quoted as saying ‘I first thought to give myself to cinema when I was 9. In 1939 I would often imagine myself dressed like the directors used to back then; loose fitting trousers, peaked cap, and megaphone. When I was 11 or 12 the younger of my brothers and I used to play with newspapers, guessing the names of the movie actors and directors listed therein. And to tell you the truth we would rarely mistake one’ (Jess Franco: El Sexo Del Horror (Bizarre Sinema: Wildest Sexiest Weirdest Sleaziest Films, check here to buy )
. Originally sent to study by his parents as a diplomat it was not long before Jess had stumbled into his chosen profession. Working in any capacity he could, and as a jazz musician in the clubs of Madrid by night, he honed his craft. Yet Franco’s first films were a far cry away from the dark and gothic body themes he would later associate himself. Tenemos 18 anos (1959) was his first feature-length presentation as a director which was a comedy. He would also work on musicals in his early career before he turned his attentions to the seedier side of life. But then while Franco is well-known for his formidable style of euro-gothic erotic-horror, there was not a genre that he did not work on at some point in his career or another, and one thing is clear he just loved to make movies.
Being one of the most prolific filmmakers in history, and auteurs for that matter, is no mean feat, and Franco worked at a ridiculous pace for most of his working life. Prior to directing he had already worked widely in the film industry, taking roles as composer, writer, assistant director, producer. It was here that he learned everything there was to know about how to make films, and he carried on this mixing of roles as he continued on to make his own films. Whether this was purely out of budget constraint is anyone’s guess, but I would suspect it had more to do with Franco having control over how things were made. If this meant he composed the music, which he did for the majority of his films, worked as the camera man, acted in the movie (another thing he did with all his films, often having more than just a cameo), as well as writing the script and directing then that was how it was. It certainly helped when it came to the subject of finances. Once of the main criticisms in Franco’s work is the often low-budget and crude nature of them. He could literally make movies from peanuts, using stock footage from his archive, filming more than one film at a time and recycling the actors (sometimes without their knowledge), recycling sets, and because of his obvious charm he just seemed to get away with it. For the most part this made a lot of his work incomprehensible, at times surrealist (due to the lack of script or using actors from other films), confusing, and difficult to understand. Yet even amongst this little moments of genius shine through. Eccentric yes, mainstream certainly not, and this is what I love about his movies.
If there was one thing he did know though it was how to squeeze every penny out of his humble budgets and if you look hard enough the innovation is a marvel to see. The Awful Dr Orloff is a perfect example of this as the movie consists what is essentially about 3 pieces of set, but the use of different camera angles and lighting, make it seem more than it is. What may be on the surface a slap shot approach to making films, there was in fact a lot of thought that went into making these features. Franco’s overuse of the zoom lens is another thing which gets slated, giving his movies a distinct voyeuristic nature. This is a factor which is picked up time and time again when analysing his work. But there was more to this than simply a stylistic statement, although that does go some way to explaining why he made films this way. Franco liked to take the viewer’s gaze and make it to go where it had never gone before that is obvious. Yet Franco explains that his love for the zoom was born from lack of funds for proper camera tracks, or manpower on the set, meaning he had to revert to this crude way of filmmaking because there simply was no other way to capture the shot without running around set like a complete loony. Love it or hate it is does make Franco’s films his and his alone, and with a wave of generic directors in mainstream today there is a lot to be said for individualism good or bad, it is at least memorable.
To understand the context of Jess Franco’s work you have to look into the political climate from which he was raised. Growing up under the strict regime of fascist dictator General Franco, (ironically sharing the same name, but thankfully not the same ideals), Spain was a very different place to the cosmopolitan culture which exists today. Strong censorship and obligatory Catholicism were the rules of the day. While many dismiss Jess’s work as purely grotesque, eroticised trash I feel they are simply missing the point. If you consider the constraints society put around him he can be regarded as nothing short than a true anarchist in filmmaking. A freedom fighter who fought the limited right-wing ideals to bring his visions to life. By tackling themes of the body; erotica, porn ( he is often cited as Spain’s first porn director), horror, he strove to kick back at the narrow-minded view of ‘decent moral conduct’ which earned him the title by no less than the Vatican itself as ‘the most dangerous filmmaker in the world’. For this Jess can only be admired, and he worked hard to ensure he could and would have his say. If only more people were willing to take the same risks, but then Jess was and always will be one of a kind, and if he left anything it was the legacy that anything is possible if you allow yourself to be free. Franco used the theme of power and control in his movies a lot, brainwashed servants, obsession, control, BDSM, slavery, and this can be seen as a metaphor for the political climate from which he was raised. Indeed he had to leave his native homeland to start making the films he wanted. He found the freedom he craved in France and set about making The Awful Dr Orloff (1962) being his first attempt at horror, and although lacking the smut factor which became synonymous with his later work, still tackled dark themes as a mad doctor utilises a brainwashed servant to steal the faces of pretty girls to reconstruct the face of his disfigured daughter.
One of Franco’s main inspirations for his work was French Libertine, philosopher and writer Marquis De Sade. De Sade, who inspired the term Sadism, certainly broke down the rules of decency when it came to writing. For anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at The 120 Days of Sodom for example you will know this is not for the faint hearted. Tackling themes such as buggery, sexual violence, pedophilia, rape, and any other form of sexual deviance you could imagine for that matter ( this is the man inspired his own form of fetish alone) there is more controversy in just a single paragraph of De Sade’s work to make even the most hardened gore or exploitation fan blush, and you thought A Serbian Film was hardcore. Yet Franco saw a lot of humour in De Sade’s work, and considered him as misunderstood. The two did share a vision however, and that was of complete artistic freedom. De Sade was imprisoned for his art, and Franco likewise punished as he failed to achieve commercial success in his work, being to a large extent outcast by the wider filmmaking community revilled as a hack, and up until recently having the true value of his work largely ignored. Jess made not only films directly taken from De Sade’s work Justine (1969) Eugenie De Sade (1970) , but themes such as torture, sexual violence, bondage and fetishism were widespread in much of his other work; 99 women, Sadisterotica, Venus in Furs, Eugenie her story into sexual perversion to name but a few.
One thing is certain Jess Franco certainly did have a dark sense of humour. He was someone who did not take himself, or anything else for that matter too seriously, another element to frequent his films. Franco would often cast himself in roles where he played a comical and or inept character and it was this ability to laugh at himself and obvious total lack of ego that made him so likeable. It is this factor which perhaps helped him to prise himself from the restraints of seeking approval from his peers, and gave him the freedom to do as he wished. He seemed to be just simply having a good time doing what he loved without a care in the world for what others around him thought.
Jazz was another feature at the heart of Franco’s movies. Being a talented jazz musician and composing many of the scores for his own work, and that of others, music was certainly at the heart of everything he did. As in everything Franco hated rules and it is easy to see why this free-spirited genre appealed to him so much. The strange offbeat tempo and pacing in many of his films has often been compared as similar to jazz timing, and Jess brought a lot of elements of a jazz score into his directing with the use of improvisation. He even managed to produce some of his musical work on vinyl, when he found the time for this is anyone’s guess. He was quoted many times as saying ‘I’m a jazz musician who makes films’. It was this obvious love of music which is incorporated into much of his cinematic work and he often cast himself in roles of musicians as a result, with smoke-filled late night seedy music clubs also being a recurrent theme. For Franco music as well as film was a lifelong passion and therefore you cannot consider one without the other, as for him they were intrinsically linked throughout his career.
While the jazz and Sadian freedom play key roles in Franco’s work one thing that is an obvious inspiration is Franco’s love for the female form. A self-confessed voyeur a Franco movie would not be complete without a naked lady or two, or three, with perhaps some lesbianism thrown in. With his sidekick the zoom lens viewers are thrown into observing exactly what Franco sees which is completely without restraint when it comes to the female body. While this can come over as somewhat seedy and purely exploitative, as a female viewer of Franco’s movies I feel there is more to his portrayal of women than mere objects. One thing that Franco does represent is a female character as strong, men in his stories are often cast as inept, bumbling, surplus to requirements in contrast to their female counterparts. That is not to say this is the case in all of his work, the women in prison films are played out purely for titillation. However if you view his work as a whole feminism and lesbianism are two themes which stand out. In Franco’s reworking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula Vampyros Lesbos for example we see the central ‘Count’ figure as a beautiful woman played by Soledad Miranda, a woman who had no need for men for that matter. Prior to this the female vampire role had always been one of a submissive sidekick to the much more powerful male. Yet Franco took archetypical gender roles in film and spun them around. Franco himself said “I love women… in most of my films women are the real protagonists… I think that women are much more important than men… I like to show them dominating the world… I am a feminist…a total feminist.” (Antena Crimnal, Jess Franco Documentary click here to buy, or read our review here).
Beautiful women were key to a lot of Franco’s work, but two in particular, Soledad Miranda, who was his first prominent muse, and sadly passed away after a car accident in 1970 at the tender age of just 27. It has been stated she was on her way to sign a multi film contract with Franco at the time of the accident. Jess is on record (various internet sources) as saying it was one of the worst days of his life when she died. After Soledad’s death Franco cast the then 18 year old Lina Romay as his star. Romay was a self-confessed exhibitionist and with Jess being a voyeur it was a match made in heaven. Lina became not only a star in countless Jess Franco titles, but his life companion, and later his wife. In later years she would often be seen accompanying him to interviews dutifully pushing his wheelchair. The two have gone on record saying in all their years together they never had an argument and there was a definite connection between them. Sadly Franco outlived Romay despite the age difference, who passed away from cancer in 2012, aged only 57.
It is a sad fact that for most of his career the artistic value in his work was largely ignored by the wider filmmaking community, but all that was set to change when in 2009 he was finally recognised by his home country Spain and was presented with a Goya award for his lifetime achievement in film. It is ironic that the country which had initially stood to restrain his vision now stood in celebration and for someone whose career spun nearly 6 decades, it was most justly deserved. A clip is available below, and is worth watching for the looks on the faces of the audience when a montage of Franco’s work is shown!
Love him or hate him Jess Franco was one of a kind and therefore cannot be ignored. As someone who stood for freedom in artistic vision he can only be admired, even if you are not a fan of his movies you had to accept this was a man who stood by what he believed and made the movies he wanted regardless of public opinion. A true maverick and it is a shame there are not more Jess Franco’s in the world today. But then there can only be one, the late, the great, Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco, I salute you for having the balls to just stand up and stick two fingers up to the mainstream. For this he will always be remembered. For his audacity and cheek, his inexhaustible energy and sheer dogged approach to producing one of the most extensive filmographies in the world of cinema (for which he earned a ranking in the Guinness Book of Records), he certainly is a hard act to follow.
For anyone wanting to know more about the life and work of Jess Franco we think this documentary The Diabolical Mr Franco is a worthwhile watch…
In honour of Jess Franco we will be reviewing some of his work at the Gore Splattered Corner in the upcoming weeks and months, the films we have chosen are listed below, check out the following clips and trailers…
The Awful Dr Orloff
The Diabolical Dr. Z
Venus in Furs
(German version, no English version available although the film has English subs on DVD)
Erotikill/ Bare Breasted Countess/ Female Vampire.
(In German, sorry we couldn’t find an English copy)