Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
I always find it interesting when a specific movie has a bunch of different names. Consider Venus in Furs. I get that it will have a different name in Italian (Paroxismus—Puo Una Morta Rivivere per Amore?), but it’s evidently also known as Paroxismus and Black Angel. In the case of this film, evidently the common name for the film and the names of the main characters are what they are because the story bears some superficial resemblance to the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name we derive the word “masochism.” If you think that means that this is a film that would likely be billed as an “erotic thriller,” you’d be right.
Enter jazz trumpet player Jimmy Logan (James Darren). One early morning after a wild party in Istanbul, Jimmy finds the body of a mutilated young woman washed up on the beach. It occurs to him that she looks a great deal like a woman that he saw at the party the previous night. More telling, the woman (Maria Rohm), named Wanda Reed, was seen in the company of three specific people. What Jimmy sees is Percival Kapp (Dennis Price), Olga (Margaret Lee), and Ahmed Kortobawi (Klaus Kinski) stripping Wanda, whipping her, and possibly killing her. Worried, Jimmy flees Istanbul and winds up in Rio de Janeiro in the company of singer Rita (Barbara McNair).
It seems that Jimmy has managed to get away with his sanity intact (although he struggles to reconnect with his music) until one day a woman walks in where Jimmy is playing. This woman more or less claims to be Wanda Reed and, aside from a different hairstyle, appears to be her. Jimmy soon becomes sexually obsessed with Wanda, something that Rita seems to accommodate for no real good reason aside from plot considerations. Meanwhile, Percival Kapp dies in mysterious circumstances, and Olga soon kills herself in her bathtub. While the world at large doesn’t seem to take much notice of these deaths, we as the audience witness what looks like Wanda Reed’s sinister influence causing them.
So is she a ghost? Is she a revenant? And what part does Jimmy play in all of this? And why on Earth would Jimmy follow Wanda back to Istanbul?
Director Jesus Franco appears to be all about style, even when that might well take away from the substance of the story. What this means is that Venus in Furs is lush and gorgeous and overtly sexual in its content. There’s a great deal of nudity here (not quite full-frontal, as would be suggested by the 1969 release date). That nudity is, believe it or not, frequently central to the plot. And a great deal of it comes, as the title suggests, with our possibly murderous revenant walking around in naught but a full-length fur.
More than simply being an erotic thriller, though, Venus in Furs is a very stylish clone of Vertigo, playing on a lot of the same notes. Sure, it’s a lot more jazz-infused and there’s a great deal of effort made to ramp up the sex, but it is otherwise very similar in plot and tone. A man becomes obsessed with a woman he has good reason to believe is dead, going to incredibly lengths to follow her. In this case, he doesn’t have to do anything to turn his obsession into what he wants her to be, but it’s almost impossible not to see the influence of the first film on this one.
I’m not always that much of a proponent of the idea of style over substance. In fact, I usually dislike that idea, but in some cases, it really can work. Venus in Furs is such a case. The music is interesting and forms an integral part of the world that is being created here. It’s not a surprise or a shock that Jimmy’s flight to Rio happens at the height of Carnival, giving us plenty of establishing shots of wild costumes and dancers in the street. The goal—one that is successful in the main—is to make the film something like a fever dream of sex and jazz.
Sure, it’s a little bit incoherent in places. Sure, there’s not really any explanation for anything that happens except for the one that we cobble together in our own heads as the audience. It’s true that the ending, while it works with the rest of the film, is something of a shock that causes a reappraisal of the entire movie. And it doesn’t matter. Venus in Furs does exactly what it wants to do. It presents something that is both sex-fueled and dripping in mystery and death. It hammers those themes well, providing a story that is in part titillating and disturbing.
I liked this more than I thought I would, which is probably the best praise I can give it.
Why to watch Venus in Furs: It seems like the ur-example of erotic thrillers.
Why not to watch: It’s a clear example of style over substance.