A Book Review by Alex Brannan.
For those experiencing a Jess Franco film for the first time, the response is unlikely to be an academic one. Known predominantly for horror and erotica films, Franco’s filmography is often relegated under the umbrella of trash cinema. His preoccupations with the female form, erotic lesbianism, sadomasochism, the Marquis de Sade, vengeful violence, the use of slow motion, and camera zooms have cornered the mainstream consensus of his work into the realms of schlock and sleaze. It is somewhat surprising, then, to hear that the cult director’s work has been explored on the fringes of film criticism for some time. The works of Tim Lucas and Stephen Thrower, as well as the I’m in a Jess Franco State of Mind blog run by Robert Monell, have catalogued the director’s films for the sake of preserving a dialogue of his oeuvre.
The Films of Jess Franco (Wayne State University Press, 2018), a book of critical essays edited by Antonio Lazaro-Reboll (author of The Spanish Horror Film, 2012) and Ian Olney (author of Zombie Cinema, 2017), aims to continue this discourse toward a purely academic end. The volume begins by lamenting the inherent problems that come with linking Franco and film criticism. There is clearly something worth examining in Franco, as his career spanned multiple decades, multiple countries, and upwards of 200 films. As much as he is known for his low-brow brand of “horrotica,” he worked in many different genres and exercised an insatiable cinephilia. Themes and formal techniques carry over from film to film, creating patterns that would justify an auteur label. Conversely, it is hard to define a coherent Franco oeuvre. His films have been subject to censorship and are known under multiple titles, making for a confusing filmography where Franco’s directorial stamp is difficult to suss out. Not to mention that his creative visions were often limited by minuscule budgets and rapid production schedules. As Lazaro-Reboll and Olney put it, his is a “body of films at war and obsessed with itself” that evades critical discourse by being the paradoxical “product of a marginalized artist and a commercial hack” (2). The conflict at play with this admission that a critical framework for Franco’s filmography is filled with inherent flaws makes for a volume that is activated by lively, diverse discussions of the director’s artistic merits.
The Films of Jess Franco takes a wide berth in its academic focus. The essays are vaguely assembled into categories – Part One puts Franco in “context,” Part Two digs into the horror and erotic themes of his work, and Part Three examines the cult reception that has grown around his work. However, each essay exerts its own individual efforts to contextualize Franco’s filmography, and it is difficult for any one writer to avoid the horrotica and cult status of their subject. While this structure does not appear the most organized, and the authors occasionally step on each other’s toes with their argumentation, the book is a detailed, well-researched examination of Franco. As Tim Lucas writes, “you can’t see one [Franco film] until you’ve seen them all” (quoted by contributor Will Dodson, 314), indicating the arduous task of creating a critical analysis out of the man’s prolific career. The authors in The Films of Jess Franco, by the mere choice of Franco as a critical focus, exhibit a commitment to intensive research. The product of this research is an engaging look at a forgotten corner of exploitation cinema.
The book does read rather dry, but this is more a warning to potential readers than a criticism of the contributors’ work. Those unfamiliar with the stock and trade of Franco will not be led through his filmography in an introductory or rudimentary manner. Having seen only a fraction of Franco’s extensive body of work, I found myself losing focus inside the minutiae of in-depth filmic analysis. With that point squared away, it is worth noting what a thrill it is to be given such a passionate, carefully compiled take on a director known for existing on the fringes of cinema. What those unfamiliar with Franco will take away from the essays is the rare perspective that his oeuvre deserves a more dignified place on the mantle of exploitation and horror cinemas. Those who already believe this to be true will delight in the academic attention finally afforded to him in this volume.
The contributors in The Films of Jess Franco take the many offbeat preoccupations of the director – zoom lenses (Andy Willis 41-42; Alberto Brodesco 191, 195; Xavier Mendik 302), “jazzy” narratives (Lazaro-Reboll and Olney 9, 72-73; Dodson 329), Sadeian sexuality (Brodesco 186) – and sets out to reposition these often-criticized elements into an academic context. Formal analysis, plot segmentation, analyses through LGBT or feminist lenses, industrial contextualization, and auteur theory are all methods by which the contributors situate Franco and his films in contrast to the common perception that his work is mere sleazy, soft-core pornography. As such, it is hard to find a negative take on Franco within the book – Finley Feibert admits that Franco’s later work takes on an “amateurish quality” (233) – but, with so little positive writing out there on Franco’s massive filmography, this reverent volume comes off more charitable than biased. The book proves that Franco’s oeuvre has been almost criminally ignored, his horrotica a deep well for an academic discussion of exploitation cinema’s artistic merits.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.