Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Horn and the Darkness: Love and death and trumpets in Venus in Furs (1969) and The Salton Sea (2002)

In 1969, Jesus Franco made a film about a trumpet player, living in a world of dreamlike European wealth and sensation, who gets hung up on a mysterious stranger and caught up in her supernatural agenda. Like the art films of the time, it was a sick-soul-of-Europe party, but it was supported by narrative and genre conventions that those other experiments didn't have. That movie was Venus in Furs.

Venus in Furs is steeped in the erotic and the enigmatic; it takes itself deathly seriously, being packed full of dramatic jazzy voiceover, and in this regard it belongs with Roger Corman among the era's kitsch excesses and indulgences. However, Venus in Furs knows how to be a little restrained and a little classy... just enough to be respectful, and therefore respectable. It probably won't do anything for people who love exploitation's self-indulgence, but for someone like me, who's more generally a "good movies" fan, it went down just right. It has its cheesiness (e.g. the title song, the bizarro ending) but it earns it in atmosphere and rhythm and self-awareness.

If you want a more detailed overview, check out an excellent review at Ferdy on Films.

And in 2002, the formula re-emerged as a tweaky cult crime thriller starring Val Kilmer, in one of those strange cinematic parallels that seems like it has to have been intentional, but also, maybe it wasn't. This film was The Salton Sea, and its similarities to Venus in Furs straddle the line between cosmetic and uncanny. Both films are about a trumpet player who's abandoned his craft because of the death of a romantic interest, the protagonists' chance encounters with desire and death. Both come to channel, or manifest, the vengeful personalities of the crimes. Both are lead into obsession and betrayal by their association with these restless demons.

On a slightly deeper level, both of these films are stories of witnessing death and dealing with the guilt that comes of it -- the transfer of responsibility for a lost life, simply because you were present for the crime. The two main characters... Danny/Tom and Jimmy... are led in different directions by this guilt: Danny becomes obsessed with retribution, whereas Jimmy becomes sexually obsessed, and almost enslaved.

It seems to me that their stories part ways at the moment when they make different decisions about the trumpet. Tom (Danny) lets go of his identity as a horn player, and he never goes back to it, taking on a new persona in order to make amends for his idle gaze. Jimmy, on the other hand, can't let it go: as the film begins, he digs up his trumpet and starts to play. This is just the moment when his crime washes up on shore, returning with his old identity, which is still infected with the memory of the murder.

Perhaps if Jimmy had gone Van Allen's route... leaving the horn and taking his life in another direction... he would never have seen Wanda wash up on the shore.

Of course, the journey isn't over for Danny/Tom: he still has to purge his guilt by pursuing the murderers (and contaminating his own body and ethics in the process). This is the amends-making that drives the movie. However, even this fate is better than Jimmy's, who loses the only person who loves him (the only person who seems to notice him), and then accompanies a vengeful spirit through a trippy afterlife. I had the sense, in fact, that Jimmy was Wanda's avatar, her link with the real world, and that she had to stay attached to him in order to carry out her mission.

Franco's tale is a bit more artistically sloppy, as befits a trash culture surrealist, and it has more inexplicable moments of hyperreality: the carnival, where normal people are licensed to release their inner demons; the sexually-ambivalent relationship between Olga and Wanda, involving a doubling collision of lustful glances and camera lenses; the red room, chamber of damnation for the wealthy murderers, where Wanda is condemned to be the object of their guilt. Among the most interesting scenes is the weird imperial fantasy of Ahmed, the host of the party, and by implication, the host of the whole sequences of events of the film.

Another place of overlap: isn't there some interesting parallel between Ahmed (played by Klaus Kinski) and Poo-Bear (played by Vincent D'Onofrio)? Both are the deranged lords of their households, entertaining depraved guests and delusions of grandeur. They are the sinister epicenters of these two psychologically intense films, providing a gravitation center for the themes of guilt, repression, and retribution.

See Venus in Furs and The Salton Sea as a double-feature, and spend a night feeling tweaky and tripped-out, meditating on the meaning of non-intervention and guilt and vengeful reincarnation by way of hapless horn players. While you're at it, hire a jazz band to play during the break. Or call me! I'll organize it, as long as you pay for the pizza.


Unknown said...

VENUS IN FURS is one of those films that has narrative and visual links to a *lot* of other movies. I am thinking in particular of all those films in which the protagonist encounters a woman who might be a ghost (or possessed by one) and he spends the rest of the film pursuing her: VERTIGO, NIGHT TIDE, THE TERROR, and Robbe-Grillet's LA BELLE CAPTIVE which I wrote about here:

Paul J. Marasa said...

Thanks for doing the heavy lifting: I was going to mention "Venus in Furs" on my Netflix Instant Play site as part of a "Halloween Roundup"; but I ran out of steam/had to work for a living. But oh boy, you nailed it by mentioing its "restraint"--compared not only to other trash films but Franco's own corroded oeuvre.

But then you go one step beyond with your comparison to "The Salrton Sea." I would've never seen it. Thanks for concocting this delirious double feature!

Jesse M said...

Thanks for the responses; very interesting. I didn't think of it before, but Venus in Furs is also thematically linked to those films where the protagonist encounters the female (especially as multiple aspects) in a dream-world, and this eventually leads to his downfall. I'm thinking Blue Velvet, Vanilla Sky, and Brazil, among others. I always wanted to write something about these types of movies, that explore the archetypes of sexuality without being overtly literal or essentialist about it.