Sunday, 28 March 2010
I'm very pleased to report that I've just returned from a trip to Spain to meet Jess Franco and Lina Romay. As you can imagine, when writing a book about a single filmmaker an awful lot rides on how well you get on with your subject, so I approached the trip with excitement, and some trepidation. I needn't have worried - I found both Jess and Lina incredibly hospitable and generous. Despite Franco's poor health in recent months, his mind is sharp and his recall formidable (I began describing my favourite scene from the 1973 PLAISIR A TROIS, in which a murderous couple spying from an upstairs window dress rapidly in order to dash outside and intercept their next victim, only for Franco to complete not only the scene description but to nail its underlying tone, laughing, "Yes, just like Abbott and Costello!".
I interviewed Jess and Lina at their apartment, over two afternoons. I was also privileged to sit and watch the latest Jess Franco film PAULA PAULA with the man himself. (It's an extraordinary experiment which has closer ties to video installation art than cinema; yet another surprise in a film career packed with surprises). We also spent time listening to music, mostly jazz. (By the way, for those who don't already know, PAULA PAULA features marvellous music by Friedrick Gulda, who wrote the jazz score to Franco's 1967 classic, NECRONOMICON). After chatting for several hours, I played Jess a CDR I'd burned, featuring a selection of music from his films (all tracks were taken from video sources, sadly, as many are unavailable on record or CD). This proved to be an excellent aid to discussion. I was able to confirm that the haunting music for ABERRACIONES SEXUALES DE UNA MUJER CASADA, one of my favourite 'obscure' Franco titles, was indeed recorded entirely by Franco himself at the electric piano and synthesizer. Even more fascinating, for those who adore the music to CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM, Franco himself plays keyboards on the score, having hired a Rome studio to record with Bruno Nicolai!
Franco is a genial and charming host, although sharper edges are there too! While attempting to describe the actor Alfred Baillou, who appears in PLAISIR A TROIS and LES CHATTOUILLEUSES, I repeatedly used a gesture to indicate his diminutive height, referring to him as 'quite small', until Franco, tiring of my (out-of-date) political correctness, turned to my translator in exasperation and exploded, "He's a fucking dwarf!" Point taken... (My good friend Gavin Mitchell accompanied me on the trip and I can't thank him enough. His wit and fluency in Spanish were absolutely invaluable).
I'll be expanding on my impressions of the man himself in my book, of course, but it just remains for me to say here that Franco's awareness of his work's occasional shortcomings, an awareness which inspires him to make guarded statements like, 'All my films are shit, it's just a question of which are less shit than others', should not be mistaken for a true and final statement of his feelings. He may tend to avoid saying it, but he knows that he's made some extraordinary films, and when pressed will admit that movies such as EUGENIE, CHRISTINA PRINCESS OF EROTICISM, LORNA THE EXORCIST, DAS BILDNIS DER DORIANA GRAY, and SADIST OF NOTRE DAME are genuine achievements. Having met him, it's now very clear to me that Jess Franco takes a real pleasure and pride in his work, from all the different periods of his career. He can also take justified pride in his commitment to creating cinema for his own satisfaction, tailored to his own tastes and impulses, rather than following the whims of the mass market. It's Franco's elevated and defiant commitment to the personal that ensures his work is so fascinating to others.
Viva Jess Franco!