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EUGENIE...THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1969) ***
Having read a lot of positive reviews about this film on the Internet (and the mystique surrounding it due to unavailability), it was no real surprise that it would be the first Jess Franco title I decided to seek out. Overall, I'm very glad I finally took the plunge to discover for myself Franco's very distinctive world-view. And I know this is one film I'll be looking forward to watch again and not purely for its exploitation value, mind you!
De Sade was most certainly a writer ahead of his time, so the updating to modern times comes off particularly well here. Production values are efficient enough and generally manage to belie the low-budget Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers had to work with; Franco's mise-en-scene is quite confident and the film is certainly good to look at. Still, what holds one's attention here is the invigorating 'atmosphere' of decadence which Franco manages to create around a flimsy but fascinating plot. Perhaps thankfully, the film is not all that long so that it does not overstay its welcome.
While there is certainly a great deal of nudity on display, the film rises above being mere exploitation fare - which I assume is a rare feat for this director, considering his notorious reputation. It is aided a great deal by genuinely interesting characterizations, particularly the two female leads: Eugenie's blind faith in her obviously more experienced mentor is so complete that she doesn't realize until too late that she is being manipulated; Marianne herself comes off as fairly sympathetic despite her devious nature all in all, a human being, and we feel sorry for her when she dies (at least, I did!); even the minor supporting characters are put to good use, like the black boatman/guitar player and the deaf-mute servant, which is not often the case with these type of films.
Having said all this, I would be lying if I said I thought that EUGENIE THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION was a perfect viewing experience. Despite the attractive scenery, I found the numerous out-of-focus shots very distracting and rather than aiding the hallucinatory nature of the story, they end up being merely annoying. Furthermore, I felt that some of the S & M sequences could have been better staged. Besides, there are some inconsistencies in the plot as well: whereas the black boatman is at first depicted as being contrary to the pagan practices, he is seen to join in during the final ceremony where Marianne meets her come-uppance.
The casting is OK, I guess, but it still comes up short in my opinion: Marie Liljedahl, nice-looking though she obviously is, is not entirely comfortable with the complexities of her role (particularly towards the end, where she is unable to properly communicate Eugenie's psychological 'degradation') [N.B.: I tend to agree with what Glenn Erickson wrote about this in his review of the R1 DVD on the 'DVD Savant' website: 'The supposed 'corruption' of Eugenie is completely unconvincing - she remains a duped puppet. When she kills the first time it is out of fear, and the second time is just not fully explained. You don't get the idea that she's progressed to the point where she can 'replace' her hostess in the cult, and that turns out not to be the plan anyway.']; likewise, Jack Taylor - though suitably enigmatic and, at times, even vulnerable - hardly makes for a compelling screen presence. On the other hand, for me, Maria Rohm is the focus of the entire film and she also gives the best performance. Christopher Lee, despite his brief appearance, is smoothly sinister and a definite plus to the proceedings; in fact, he and Rohm make for a much more convincingly 'evil' pair. Then there is Bruno Nicolai's music: a very fine score and a memorable one, but which I feel is, in spots, a bit too jovial for its purpose.
I had already read that the story of the film was 'imagined' by Marianne in online reviews, but it still managed to take me by surprise when it happened. At first I was a bit let-down by this 'flashback' device for me the film would have ended ideally when Eugenie runs out of the house, comes upon the graves on the beach and realizes that she is trapped on the island which is enclosed by barbed wire. Even the next morning shot when the police siren is heard sounding off in the distance was rather unnecessary. However, upon realizing that everything that we had been watching has yet to take place, rather than seeming a 'cop-out' (akin to what contemporary critics had said of the similar ending to Fritz Lang's marvelous THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW ), it just added a new layer of subversion to the proceedings. It not only implies that Marianne actually relishes the thought of perishing at the hands of her beloved Eugenie but also that this eventuality would be the epitome of a vicious circle of lovers killing each other as a climactic finale on which to end their relationship, tenuous as that may have been: Mirvel (Marianne's stepbrother and long-time lover) kills Theresa (also perhaps once Marianne's lover); Mirvel is in turn killed by Eugenie (Marianne's present lover); Eugenie was to have been killed by Marianne but with the aid of Dolmance (conceivably once also Marianne's lover) kills Marianne instead; Dolmance (also presumably lusting for Eugenie) double-crosses her and pins all three murders onto her, etc.
The acceptance of the dream-state as the environment in which the film is ultimately taking place seems to excuse and indeed justify some of those technical fallacies and character inconsistencies of which I spoke earlier, for what dream is anything but an imperfect and half-remembered rendition of real-life events? In the end, therefore, the impression I was left with regarding the ending was more comparable to the open-ended and ambiguous one found in Luis Bunuel's magnificent BELLE DE JOUR (1967) which could be interpreted in any number of legitimate ways.
Though the film was apparently shot in English, the soundtrack was looped later in the studio. In this respect, it isn't too bad if not always in synch which can prove a distraction. After the many glowing reviews I had read, I found the DVD transfer to be somewhat disappointing (even if I can entirely understand its shortcomings) but, as it is, there is simply too much grain in exterior shots and the print is also a little faded in spots. The extras are fantastic: the 17-minute documentary is excellent indeed, particularly Franco's sincere ruminations about the film and his own working conditions; he comes off as a quite pleasant, even intelligent, man and completely unpretentious. Tim Lucas' liner notes are a good read, even if he feels a bit over-awed by the film's many (and doubtless genuine) 'qualities'.
In the end, EUGENIE THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION - or, as it's called on Anchor Bay UK's R2 disc, MARQUIS DE SADE'S PHILOSOPHY IN THE BOUDOIR - may not be a very subtle film (certainly not much is left to the spectator's imagination) but, for all its faults, is quite often a sublime one.
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