For many years unavailable on VHS, this fine collaboration between writer/producer Harry Alan Towers and sultan of sleaze Jess Franco, now emerges on this exemplary Anchor Bay U.K. DVD as perhaps the finest of all Franco's two-hundred plus movies. It certainly justifies several indifferent Fu Manchu yawn-o-thons and lacklustre historical "dramas" that seemed, at one point, to be the main legacy of the Towers-Franco partnership. What we get here (as Franco scholar Tim Lucus points out in the disc's liner notes) is a perfect marriage of art and exploitation: mischievous, challenging and (thanks to the DVD's wonderful new transfer at any rate) often mesmerisingly beautiful in its "groovy", contemporary sixties riff on de Sade's tale of corrupted innocence.
Eugine (Marie Liljedahl) is an innocent but sexually curious young girl with a slight crush on Madame de St. Ange (Maria Rohm) --"friend" of her stepfather Monsieur de Mistival (Paul Muller). The Madame though, is equally fascinated with young Eugenie, and seduces the cowardly de Mistival into letting the girl visit her for the weekend on her secluded island, with the apparent intention of introducing the young virgin to the pleasures of Sapphic love! This web of forbidden lust is complicated even more by the incestuous feelings Madame de Ange's stepbrother Mirvel (Jack Taylor) has for his stepsister and his sexual obsession with Eugenie!
It turns out that there are even more sinister reasons for Madame de Ange luring Eugenie to the island. A mysterious aristocratic character called Dolmance (Christopher Lee) and his disciples are also to be guests at the island; Dolmance is a devotee of the writings of the Marques de Sade, and Eugenie is to be a pawn in their corrupt rituals! The young innocent is first drugged, and then introduced into a world of orgiastic sadism and masochism. Although she is, at first, unable to remember what has befallen her, Eugenie's moral world begins to disintegrate; her apparent sex-charged nightmares become harder and harder to suppress and dismiss as mere fantasy, and the young girl cannot begin to imagine what her amoral hosts have in store for her ... soon she will be ready to break one last, final taboo!
Judging purely from those that have been released on DVD so far, many of Franco's films from this period look fabulous but seem quite hastily directed. Franco often seems to rely on filming scenes with one, static master-shot and simply zooming in and out on objects and people in the frame rather than figuring out appropriate camera set-ups. This often works well enough in Franco's very low-budget erotic offerings, but not so well on his more expensive-looking genre films for Towers, where it simply ruins the illusion. Although it was filmed in about three weeks, "Eugenie..." not only looks fabulous, but you can tell it's director was really enthusiastic about the project as well: the film is full of beautifully composed images and elaborate tracking shots; it's sophisticated mes-en-scene of cloudless azure blue skies, golden island sands, and interior decor of frivolous, primary coloured sixties chic -- all shimmering under an attractive Mediterranean light -- veils the murky amoral deviancy and sexual cruelty of the film's scheming bourgeois characters in a fine sheen of gossamer brightness. Occasionally, Franco shrouds the entire 2.35:1 scope screen in intensely vivid crimson for extended periods of time for scenes in which Eugenie's dark reality is experienced as a fevered drug-induced dream; and the entire proceedings are accompanied by Bruno Nicolai's diverse and entertaining score (one of the best in the Franco cannon, rivaling his Manfred Hubler and Sigi Schwab scored films) which ranges from groovy sixties jazz to blissed-out electric vibes that sound like The Velvet Underground in a brothel!
The film is based on de Sade's "Philosophy in the Boudoir" and although Towers and Franco could not possibly film what was in the novel without it being an X-rated film, they managed to recreated it's spirit thanks to a terrific cast: Marie Liljedahl gives a convincing performance in the difficult role of Eugenie. The character's naiveté and childishness could easily become annoying, but Liljedahl manages to hold the viewer's sympathy throughout, while also sowing enough seeds of selfishness within the character's innocent demeanour to make her eventual decent into total depravity believable. Alongside Liljedahl, the terrific Maria Rohm (in probably her finest role for Franco) is the perfect incarnation of calculating heartlessness, thinly disguised by her forever alluring "cool blonde" exterior; Jack Taylor, as Madame de St. Ange's lover and stepbrother, is quietly menacing in his portrayal of the obsessive Mirvel, who's desire to sate his perverted lusts will not bow to any social constriction; and finally, Christopher Lee gives the whole enterprise an air of legitimacy, even if he was deceived about the nature of the film he was appearing in, and had no idea until a friend told him he'd seen his name on a poster for the film showing in a less reputable establishment of Old Compton Street! Lee actually seems to be having a ball here (although he was only on set for two days of the three week shoot), and his performance certainly helps lift the film to another level as he strides around in his red smoking-jacket, intoning words of wisdom culled from the writings of de Sade.
The film is the high point of Franco's collaboration with Harry Alan Towers; the director was clearly starting to lose patience with the commercial restrictions that the association entailed. Subsequent projects such as the bland "The Bloody Judge" lack the inspiration and the creative energy that is clearly evident in "Eugenie..." and Franco would work to recapture the same spirit of spaced-out eroticism on much, much lower budgets in his later career, coming the closest in his collaborations with the actress Soledad Miranda.
"Eugenie..." is Franco's masterpiece. The always self-critical director describes it as "the film he hates the least" out of all those he has made! Anyone looking for a place to start their investigation into the director's unique cinematic world could do no better than to start with his finest work -- and Anchor Bay UK's DVD (or Blue Underground's) offers a generally wonderful transfer of this previously lost masterpiece. There are though, numerous instances when the picture goes out of focus. I have no idea if the film was actually filmed like this in the first place (it's not unfeasible in the wacky world of Franco!) or if it's just down to the condition of the elements Blue Underground had to assemble the transfer from. The film is generally far grainier than the other Towers-Franco offerings from the company, but considering it's unavailability for thirty years, it really does look amazingly vibrant.
The extras include the usual, well composed Franco biography, a photo gallery, and a fifteen minute featurette in which Towers, Franco, a weary looking Liljedahl, and a dignified Chris Lee talk about their recollections of making the movie. Lee is particularly complimentary about Franco as a director, although it's a fair bet he would be horrified if he knew about some of the works the director has been responsible for in his time!
A strong presentation then of an important film for Franco and Euro-Shock fans alike. Highly recommended.