Thursday, January 29, 2009

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004)

Zhang Yimou's decision to move into action pictures raised some eyebrows. Snootier observers will often do this Mr. Spock Shuffle when confronted by a much-acclaimed director of "arty" pictures deciding to go pop on them. Such directors, reads the Gospel of the Pretentious, debase themselves by making films for the unwashed masses; they cast aside their souls for a paycheck. No one likes a sell-out, not even me. I just don't have much use for the excruciatingly narrow definition of "serious" cinema on which this particular breed of judgment is founded, or of the elitist pretensions of those who offer it. Show me someone who thinks art and popular cinema are inherently at odds, and I'll show you an imbecile who hates movies. As it turned out, Zhang did pretty damn well with his first foray into genre. HERO was a damn fine movie. Significantly less fine, however, was his follow-up, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, which did, indeed, play to the prejudices of those eyebrow-raisers. My remarks on it, composed in the immediate aftermath of my viewing of it:

April 20, 2005

What if we had images Salvador Dali may have doodled in his spare time? Not when he was busy creating some masterwork or other, but at more mundane moments like when he was vegging out, maybe laying in some hammock popping grapes or sitting on the toilet. Maybe those doodles would be interesting. No one would ever confuse them with masterpieces. They're just things that offer some glimpse into the mind of the artist at some random moment when he was working an idea, goofing off, or or just wasn't terribly concerned with creating art.

They'd probably look something like HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.

I went into this one cold, having seen nothing from it and knowing nothing of its story. With Zhang Yimou behind the camera, I suppose I'd have had a right to some high expectations. A few of his films have been real classics; HERO (2002), his previous foray into wuxia, was one of the best films of the previous year. I was terribly curious to see HOFD.

I just finished it.

And it ain't good.

HOFD is difficult to simply dismiss outright as a "bad" movie only because Zhang Yimou is a master craftsman who is clearly present in the work. Sort of like the Dali doodles. While calling it "bad" poses some difficulties, it would be hard to understate the case for its "ain't-good"ness; for a film about which I knew literally nothing going in, I haven't been this let down in a very long time.

First and foremost--and this represents a major break by Zhang with his previous work--the film isn't about anything. Whereas HERO was, to paraphrase one of reviewer, "exploring a profound theme in a very ambitious way," HOFD is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. There are no underlying themes, grand or modest, to be found anywhere in its two hours. It's barely more than a series of random (frequently quite tedious) scenes thrown together. About an hour into the film, you get a "big reveal."[1] Most movie goers will, I suspect, have seen it coming from only minutes into the film--I certainly did--but when it finally arrives, you think you're about to see a major theme emerge having to do with identity. Everything has been heavy-handedly pointing toward it for a while. Unfortunately,[2] it's dropped, immediately and permanently, and a cloying soap opera introduced, which is allowed to consume the rest of the film.

And it isn't even a good soap. To be effective, a soap must be emotionally engaging on at least some level. In HOFD, the film goes out of its way to be exactly the opposite. The structure of the film denies the viewer even the most basic knowledge necessary to have any feelings at all for the characters. Everyone is lying about who they are for most of the movie, and when this is revealed, the viewer is never offered anything to fall back on. You don't know who they are, and can't feel any sympathy for them. Their very bad behavior, after the "big reveal," makes this even worse--by then, you're actively disliking them, and, before the movie is over, you just wish everyone would die. Further crippling this entire stretch of film is the Spielbergian structure adopted by the director which is constantly telling the viewer he's supposed to care about them.

Then there are the set-pieces. HERO was packed to the gills with fantastic set-pieces; during its running time, you were faced, on perhaps dozens of occasions, with astonishingly original and beautiful images which floated around in your mind long after the movie was over. HOFD has much more action than HERO--there seems to be an action sequence every three minutes or so--but it doesn't manage a single such image. Not one. The action sequences, in fact, were, almost without exception, blandly choreographed exercises in unbearable tedium. More than once, during HOFD many dull donnybrooks, my finger crept toward the fast-forward button, and, at two different points, I was unable to resist the temptation. In HERO, the fights were highly stylized; lots of wirework, emotion, close-ups. It wasn't supposed to be "realistic." It was like a cinematic adaptation of a feeling. It was like a dance. It was like an opera. Beautiful wuxia. In HOFD, it's like a really silly cartoon, full of awful, awful, awful CGI-"artist" masturbation of the kind that have rendered Hollywood's "summer blockbusters" unwatchable. Every battle in HOFD sees scores of badly-computer-generated arrows, swords, and daggers cut around corners, and bounce off targets only to reset themselves in midair and try again. They behave in more ridiculous fashion than the JFK "magic bullet", and the movie exploits every visual cliché in the book in displaying them--for what seems like hundreds of times, you get the standard traveling shot following a CGI weapon in the foreground to its target. HERO had a few moments where fights were ill-conceived (the chess parlor fight and the fight over the lake) or dragged on a bit too long (like the incredible fight in the autumnal forest). All of HOFD's fight sequences were like this.

The conclusion of this mess is just awful in every possible way, and is not in the least camouflaged by the inexplicable snow-storm Zhang threw in to try to confuse the matter. It's the sort of ending you tack on when there's no real point to anything you've just seen. There's no way to create a real ending, because, the film having told no story, there's no story to play out. Throw in some more fighting and a sudden snow-storm, and maybe no one will notice (Zhang foolishly draws attention to the Flying Dagger plot he'd so abruptly abandoned for soap by tossing in a shot of the soldiers creeping up on Flying Dagger HQ near the end--should have let us forget about them, Zhang!).

In short, HOFD looks exactly like what an upbudget Hollywood attempt to duplicate a film like HERO or CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON would look like. Its remarkably positive critical reception in the United States is a very damning comment on the state of contemporary film criticism. I don't deal in thumbs, and don't like numerical ratings for films. I suppose one measure of a movie's impression is whether you find yourself looking at it again. I've seen HERO a few times now--I don't anticipate I'll ever be sitting down to HOFD again.

---

[1] The "big reveal" makes rubbish out of several things you've already seen--this one would hold up really badly on subsequent viewings, when the viewer is aware of everyone's real agenda beforehand.

[2] "Unfortunately," because at least it would have given the film some point.

--j.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Best" Picture?

With as much fanfare as they can muster, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just announced this year's Oscar nominees. I don't like the Academy Awards. The reasons are legion, too many to list. I think those Oscar statues are far too often held up as the gold standard on quality cinema when, far too often, they're really emblematic of conformity, timidity and mediocrity.

A few years ago, I participated in an internet discussion touched off by the unconscionable decision to award the wretched CRASH the Best Picture Oscar. Everyone seemed to agree at the time that this was one of the historically bad Academy awards, which means there may be some hope for mankind after all. The discussion expanded to include other Best Picture travesties, of which there have been a great many. I wrote the embryonic version of this piece then, but I don't think I ever actually posted it anywhere. As I recall, I found it sitting unfinished one day and, having some time on my hands and not wanting to throw away the research, began embellishing it for further reference. I've tinkered with it several times since. In compiling it, I've stuck almost entirely to "mainstream" films, which is arguably just as questionable as the procedure that leads to the actual Oscar picks. My rationale in doing this is to beat the Academy at its own game. I don't demand they recognize the cutting edge--I play with their own toys in their own back yard. In the cold glare of history, where movies either gain the esteem of classics or are discarded, the list of films that weren't even nominated is even more damning of the Oscar process than the bad calls.

This is the latest version of the piece, Best Picture travesties major and minor:

1941 - HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY beats CITIZEN KANE. It also topped THE MALTESE FALCON that year. While Kane, the Falcon, and even SERGEANT YORK (also nominated) are still watched, quoted, satirized, and loved today (and KANE is widely--and rightly--regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever filmed), no one even remembers HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. It doesn't even seem to be fondly remembered by John Ford fans.

1946 - THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES beats IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but at least both were nominated. Far better than either of them are the wholly unnominated THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLERS, and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, in a year when THE YEARLING wasted a nominee slot.

1950 - ALL ABOUT EVE beats SUNSET BLVD. Two great films, but an obvious bad call. To understand the full scope of its badness, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, IN A LONELY PLACE, and THE THIRD MAN were entirely unnominated that year, while FATHER OF THE BRIDE was nominated.

1951 - AN AMERICAN IN PARIS beats A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, while THE AFRICAN QUEEN, DETECTIVE STORY, and THE THING went unnominated.

1952 - THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH beats HIGH NOON and THE QUIET MAN (not a fan of the latter but I can't argue it hasn't survived).

1956 - AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS takes the prize, a win which is one of the most widely-acknowledged Best Picture travesties. Unnominated that year was THE SEARCHERS (not a movie of which I'm very fond, but still far better than the one that actually won), THE KILLING (a real classic and far better than either of those), and--most importantly--SEVEN SAMURAI, now universally acknowledged as one of the greatest works the medium has ever produced. The director of the latter, Akira Kurosawa, was, like Orson Welles, one of the greatest talents to ever sit behind a camera, with more than half a dozen undisputed masterpieces to his credit, many arguable ones and many, many more excellent films besides. He was never honored as Best Director and none of his films ever won Best Picture (or even best foreign language feature). Near the end of his life, the Academy did belatedly give him a lifetime achievement Oscar.

1958 - GIGI wins. Ludicrous in itself, made far more ludicrous by the fact that neither VERTIGO (easily Hitchcock's masterpiece) nor TOUCH OF EVIL (one of Welles' many classics) were even nominated.

1960 - THE APARTMENT wins--admittedly a solid film, but INHERIT THE WIND, its better, was never nominated, in a year when SONS AND LOVERS, THE SUNDOWNERS, and THE ALAMO were. Also left unnominated were PSYCHO and SPARTACUS (I'm not a big fan of the latter but its reputation and longevity--and the films that actually were nominated in its stead--make it a noteworthy oversight)

1964 - MY FAIR LADY beats DR. STRANGELOVE. Unnominated this year are some real classics--SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, FAIL SAFE, THE BEST MAN, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA and even THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO--while MARY POPPINS and ZORBA THE GREEK are given nominee slots.

1965 - THE SOUND OF MUSIC beats DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. REPULSION goes unnominated, while DARLING, SHIP OF FOOLS, and A THOUSAND CLOWNS fill out nominee slots.

1967 - IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT beats THE GRADUATE, while COOL HAND LUKE, THE DIRTY DOZEN, POINT BLANK, and Welles' CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT go unnominated. And DR. DOLITTLE is nominated.

1968 - OLIVER! beats Zefferelli's ROMEO & JULIET. OLIVER! over nearly anything would be a travesty. In its year, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY joined both PLANET OF THE APES and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY in the not-nominated pile, while both RACHEL, RACHEL, and FUNNY GIRL were nominated.

1969 - MIDNIGHT COWBOY beats BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I wouldn't give the Academy too much hell for that. The travesty comes from the fact that THE WILD BUNCH, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (probably the greatest Western ever committed to film) weren't even nominated, while the Academy found room in its list of nominees for both HELLO DOLLY And ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS.

1979 - KRAMER VS. KRAMER beats APOCALYPSE NOW. A monumentally poor call, one made even worse by the final line-up that led to it: Unnominated, that year, was DAWN OF THE DEAD, THE CHINA SYNDROME, ALIEN, BEING THERE, ...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, and Herzog's NOSFERATU, but the Academy still had room for nominations of the likes of ALL THAT JAZZ, BREAKING AWAY, and KRAMER VS. KRAMER (which had been entirely forgotten only a few years after it had won).

1988 - RAIN MAN beats DANGEROUS LIAISONS. That, alone, would be an unbelievable travesty (as would RAIN MAN winning over just about anything), but, as usual, it's even worse: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST wasn't even nominated, in a year when WORKING GIRL was.

1989 - DRIVING MISS DAISY beats GLORY, while DO THE RIGHT THING and Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V go unnominated.

1990 - DANCES WITH WOLVES beats GOODFELLAS. Absolutely no way to justify that. Excluded from nominations were HENRY & JUNE, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER, and INTERNAL AFFAIRS, while dogshit like AWAKENINGS and GHOST were nominated.

This is only one of the many years in which Martin Scorsese deserved honors and went without them. The Academy breezed through MEAN STREETS, ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, GOODFELLAS--an entire career of genuine classics--without granting Marty the prize. This was only recently "corrected" but even that turned into a bit of a travesty--Scorsese was honored for THE DEPARTED, one of his distinctly lesser films, over more deserving competition.

1994 - FORREST GUMP--trite rubbish--beats out THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and PULP FICTION.

1996 - THE ENGLISH PATIENT beats FARGO. Far better than either, however, were the unnominated: SLINGBLADE, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, and LONESTAR. And THE CRUCIBLE, down the scale but still far better than the winner, didn't make the cut, either. The 1990s were incredible years for movies but you'd hardly know that from the Oscar allots. The year 1996 should have been a very competitive Oscar year, like one of the years from the '70s, but instead, it was bogged down in lousy nominees. JERRY MAGUIRE and THE ENGLISH PATIENT--both embarrassing rot--seemed to turn up in every major category in place of all of these films.

FARGO is a good movie, but I've never really thought of it as Best Picture material; it's certainly one of the Coen brothers' lesser films. The Coens' two greatest films were O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (a genuine American classic) and BARTON FINK, neither of which were even nominated in their respective years. O BROTHER wasn't given a slot among the nominees in a year in which TRAFFIC, GLADIATOR (!!!), and ERIN BROCKOVICH (!!!!!!!!!!!) were. Worse, the Academy couldn't find a place for FINK in a year in which they stuck BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (!), BUGSY (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), and THE PRINCE OF TIDES (!s to the point of requiring scientific notation) on the ballot.

The Academy has continued to be clueless about the Coens--last year saw Best Picture delivered over to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, in reality the Coens' biggest creative misfire since THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE and a film even further divorced from everything that makes their regular work special than was FARGO.

1997 - TITIANIC beats L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. BOOGIE NIGHTS--the legitimate Best Picture of 1997--wasn't even nominated, nor were THE SWEET HEREAFTER or IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (all better than either TITANIC or L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.)

1998 - SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE wins. The fact that it beats SAVING PRIVATE RYAN always comes up in discussions of Oscar travesties but I don't agree with it as an example of poor decision-making. SPR is one of the most overrated excuses for a movie of the last two decades. Every element that comprised it had been done, done better and then done to death years before it was even on the drawing board. Much of the film is embarrassingly awful and so cliche-ridden that, while watching it (and being incredibly bored), I was able to describe, with remarkable accuracy, what would happen next. My friend to whom I was offering this commentary thought I'd lied about having never seen the movie. In a sense, I had--it was just that I'd seen it in all the other war movies from which the cliches it employed had emerged, the movies from which all the scenes it ripped off had come. I don't dispute those who say SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE probably didn't deserve Best Picture that year. I certainly wouldn't have given it the award but its advantages over SPR--originality and intelligence--are glaringly obvious, and SPR's failure is not some sort of martyr to bad decision-making. In that latter category, instead, falls some of the other awards SPR was given (including Spielberg's Best Director nod).

It would require a book to fill in all the full-fledged Best Picture travesties.

Look, for example, at 1995, wherein you had, as nominees, APOLLO 13, BRAVEHEART, IL POSTINO, BABE, and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. None of these even deserved nomination, much less to win.

While second-stringers and third-raters of that ilk filled out the nominee roster, films left entirely unnominated that year include SE7EN, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, ROB ROY, STRANGE DAYS, Ian McKellan's RICHARD III, and (far down the list) TO DIE FOR.

That list of unnominated films would have made a more credible Best Picture list than the ones actually on the list and any of them would be more deserving of Best Picture.

For that matter, the unnominated films I've mentioned for several of these years would have made more credible Best Picture lists than the ones actually nominated.

The Oscars do sometimes get it right (AMERICAN BEAUTY's many wins seem almost miraculous, as bad as things have gotten in recent decades). They certainly aren't any sort of gold-standard for quality when it comes to Best Picture, though (and a list of directors who were never nominated or won would probably be even more damning than this one). Sometimes, they go to movies that shouldn't even be up for any sort of award, and the undeserving beat the deserving as often as not (far more often than not, in recent years). I don't have much use for them.

--j.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

HBO's ROME (2005-2007)

HBO has gotten a tremendous amount of critical praise in recent years for several of their productions and while it's true they've sometimes done some of the best work on television, it's often the case that this hype turns out to be a lot of hooey--mediocre and even poor product elevated beyond any reasonable estimation of its merits. One project showered with this sort of profuse praise that actually lived up to--and exceeded--its hype is ROME, a massive two-season, 22 chapter epic set in the last days of the Roman Republic.

We've seen a lot of Roman epics over the years, of every conceivable degree of quality (mostly bad, though), but there's never been a project like ROME. HBO, co-producing with the BBC, gave the series the red-carpet treatment, shooting in 35mm film in Rome itself, devoting five acres of the Cinecittà backlot to recreating sections of the city and spending something in the neighborhood of $200 million for the entire run. The amount of attention given to every detail of the physical production is almost absurd--you can see it in every shot.

So it looks pretty but how is it?

Excellent. As a drama, ROME would still rank among the best we've gotten from television if it was staged on cardboard sets with wooden swords. The series covers about 20 years of history, from Julius Caesar's victory in Gaul to the ascendancy of Augustus. We follow events through parallel storylines involving, on the one hand, the major players (Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, etc.) and on the other, a pair of regular Roman plebs and their families and associates.

The latter, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), are legionaries serving in Gaul as the story opens. Though their names are drawn from actual soldiers mentioned in Caesar's commentary on the campaign in Gaul, the characters are entirely fictional and owe much more of their substance to buddy comedies and action movies than to Caesar. Besides being a damn good drama, ROME serves as an almost anthropological examination of life in ancient Rome and Vorenus and Pullo serve as our eyes into that society. We're given story arcs related to their military service, their efforts at returning to civilian life and taking up regular trades and they even put in a long stint as officially sanctioned gangsters. McKidd, Stevenson and pretty much everyone else in the cast are uniformly excellent. Bruno Heller, who is really the creative force behind the show, is quite clever in finding ways in which to work these characters into the major historical events covered in the series.

We're given a rip-roaring, first-rate take on those more familiar events as well--Caesar's victory in Gaul, his conflict with Pompey, his rise to dictator and eventual death and the power-struggle between Antony and Octavian that followed. There's much behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by everyone involved. The series offers an almost entirely fictionalized version of Octavian's mother Atia as a wonderfully devilish schemer, brought to life with much enthusiasm by Polly Walker. One ongoing storyline deals with Atia's battle with Caesar's lover Servilia (Lindsay Duncan, bringing to life an equally fictionalized version of a real historical figure). It culminates, late in the run, in extremely dramatic fashion, capped by the funniest line of the series (watch it--you'll see what I mean). Bringing to life the major players is another excellent cast. James Purefoy in particular gives us the screen version of the Mark Antony those of us with an interest in this history have always imagined.

The series isn't without flaws but most of them are very minor. Its conclusion, I'll concede, isn't very good--probably the series' weakest point. There have been some quibbles among commentators on the show about historical accuracy. These seem grossly misplaced to me. Jonathan Stamp, the series' historical consultant, has said ROME aims for authenticity, not necessarily painstaking historical accuracy, and the most brutal of scoffers on this point would be hard pressed to deny that the show has authenticity in spades but it's also pretty good history. Corners are sometimes cut, events are somewhat altered at times, a lot of the show deals with fictional characters (or fictionalized versions of real ones) but it still manages to hit pretty close to the mark when it comes to the broad historical record and by the usual standard of such projects (see, most recently, GLADIATOR), it may as well be a history textbook.

Well-written, thoughtful, violent, funny, moving, meticulously staged and with more layers than could be fully absorbed in half a dozen viewings, ROME is a first-rate production all the way--worthy of every rave it drew. This is probably the closest anyone can ever hope to get to being in pagan Rome and it plays out well enough that we may experience some little feeling of regret at that fact.

Both seasons of ROME are available on DVD but unfortunately, HBO continues their practice of confusing their wares with those of the Criterion Collection when it comes to pricing. The DVD releases are as good as the series, and packed to the gills with excellent extras but upon their initial release, they were insanely overpriced--many times anything reasonable and far more than I'm willing to pay. They've come down quite a bit but contemplating the current $80+ price-tag for a 22-episode series, I can't help but reflect on the irony of the fact that, in this age when we hear so much of piracy, the talk is always centered around some teenagers downloading files on their computers. I ended up purchasing my copies of ROME used, at a fraction of what they cost new, which is probably the best way to go. Or just rent them. But see them.

--j.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

EUGENIE DE SADE (1970)

Last year, Blue Underground released a fantastic disc of Jesús Franco's EUGENIE DE SADE. My review of the film:

Fri., 11 April, 2008

Jesús Franco is a fellow about whom I've written here in the past. One of the most prolific filmmakers the medium has ever seen, he was one of the fellows Phil Hardy covered in the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR MOVIES whose work sounded utterly fascinating but was virtually unknown in the U.S. Tim Lucas wrote a groundbreaking survey of it in FANGORIA in the 1980s and he was featured in his own chapter of Tohill-&-Tombs' IMMORAL TALES but it wasn't until the advent of DVD that his work began to circulate like mad here and, exceeding even the decades of anticipation enthusiasts had stored up, he became a full-fledged cult legend (after nearly 50 years in the business, his movies are now financed by his fans).

One of his absolute best films (and to be clear on the point, Franco has a lot of those and you've never seen one Franco until you've seen them all) is EUGENIE DE SADE from 1970. The movie has been released to North American DVD twice, once by Wild East, which mostly specializes in spaghetti westerns, and next by Blue Underground, which specializes in just about any sort of arty--or not so arty--cult film.

The movie--obsessive, disturbing, and still darkly romantic--is based on "Eugenie de Franval," by the Marquis de Sade but updated to a modern setting. It tells the story of Albert Radek, a quite brilliant but very twisted writer (played by Paul Muller), and his step-daughter Eugenie, whom he has raised from birth. Because of censorship concerns, Franco didn't make her his real daughter, as in the book. In the film, Muller's wife had already been pregnant when he married her, she'd died not long after giving birth and he'd raised Eugenie himself. But not necessarily out of fatherly love. He had a much darker agenda, as we soon learn, one that would have raised the hackles of censors if she'd been blood kin. Radek has, in fact, raised Eugenie to be his perfect companion, a lover and a collaborator in his various and sundry crimes. He kills people. He does so just because he likes to do it and, more importantly, because he likes to prove to himself that he can get away with it. Eugenie loves him. He's been her entire world for her entire life. When he reveals his purpose, she's sucked into his madness and the movie records it all.

Eugenie is played by the ravishing Soledad Miranda, then one of Franco's regular stable of performers, and she has never looked better than in this film. Only 26 at the time, she pulls off a balancing act in her performance that would have been impressive for an actress of twice her years. Eugenie willingly participates in all of her step-fathers' horrors, yet still retains an air of innocence--she is a victim as well as a perpetrator. One online review of the film said Paul Muller is totally miscast as her stepfather and I couldn't disagree more strongly. His intensity is piercing and he nails every note of his performance like a virtuoso. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine anyone else in the part.

Jesús Franco often writes himself into his own films in some way. These aren't token cameos in Franco's hands. Rather, they're like his own running commentary on himself and on his own work. In EUGENIE DE SADE, he casts himself as a writer named Tanner who seems to be wise to what's happening with Radek and his step-daughter. He shadows them throughout the picture but doesn't want to stop them or turn them in--he just wants to watch and to record it all. It's through his efforts that we hear the story. (In an interview included on the Blue Underground release of the film, Franco, apparently feeling a bit cheeky, rejects rumors that he and Soledad Miranda were ever lovers, saying their relationship was more like that of a father and daughter.)

The visuals are Franco at his best--slow, consuming and mesmerizing, with bright, expressionistic splashes of color. Special kudos belong to the films' excellent score, another shot out of the park by Bruno Nicolai. Like Eugenie herself, it suggests both innocence and corruption--the tragedy of the tale in music. Like the film itself, it's quite beautiful and the use to which it's put is a perfect marriage of image and sound.

Appropriate to the material, the atmosphere in this one is stifling at times. It's dark subject matter and the film, while never flinching in its display of the more disturbing elements, eschews any moralizing. We're told the tale through a subjective, dreamlike narrative offered by Eugenie herself to writer Tanner/director Franco. I imagine some will feel the need for a shower after watching it. One shouldn't feel too dirty, though; this is great movie-making.

--j.