Her body is bruised and embraced beyond her wildest dreams…
The cover art of Eugenie…the story of her journey into perversion depicts a bleeding, bare-breasted young girl shielding her eyes from the sun. This DVD screams "cheap nudie flick." When I opened the case and saw the DVD I couldn't help but smile: not one, but two nubile naked vixens grace the DVD, and the liner notes show them kissing! Oh, boy. I have seen many a Skinemax flick, and I knew what was coming. Cheap, laughable "sex" scenes, ludicrous plot, bad dialogue, maybe a fern shot or two that should shock but somehow just doesn't.
The laughter quickly died on my lips. Haunting strains of ethereal music introduced stunningly bright, clear, and artistic opening credits. The film that followed was engrossing, spare, wretched, lovely, and agonizing. Eugenie is finely crafted, with an exquisitely obsessional eye. Exploitation, yes. But writing off Eugenie as simple exploitation is a mistake that could cost you a rare and enjoyable film experience.
Facts of the Case
Eugenie is a steamy adaptation of Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy in the Boudoir," which features the despoiling of an innocent girl. Marquis de Sade's original work was too graphic to be accurately rendered on film, but Eugenie shows enough to suggest what is left out. Originally titled "La Isla de la Muerte," it was retitled Eugenie…the story of her journey into perversion for its release in the United States.
The film centers around Eugenie (Marie Liljedahl), a pure, sheltered girl who seeks escape from the strict convent she attends and the constraints of her overbearing mother. She is awed by Madame de St. Ange (Maria Rohm), a classy, worldly woman of grace and elegance. Madame de St. Ange has sex with Eugenie's father in exchange for letting Eugenie stay the weekend on Madame's island. Eugenie's father agrees, as long as no harm comes to her. Don't worry, Madame promises.
Once on the island, Eugenie finds that Madame has also invited her stepbrother, Mirvel (Jack Taylor). He is icily charming and regards Eugenie as a fox would regard a bunny. We soon find that Madame and Mirvel engage in sibling revelry, and Eugenie is to be their sexual pawn. They set about corrupting poor Eugenie in every way: wine, weed, rock and roll, hanky-panky, and of course a healthy dose of the words of de Sade.
Soon, things turn nasty, and Eugenie is not having fun anymore. Or is she? Have the creepy twins unleashed Eugenie's inner lust demon? Will she turn the tables, or be thrown out like sexual detritus? And what of the other strange visitors to the island, led by the menacing Dolmance (Christopher Lee)?
Eugenie is a wonderfully rendered Eurocult film by Jess Franco, the prolific and oft misunderstood Spanish director. Franco is a fringe director who has cranked out many cult classics (Vampyros Lesbos, Faceless, Succubus, 99 Women, Virgin Among the Living Dead), but because of some mediocre work he is underappreciated for his good work. After making over 150 films spanning 48 years, he has proven his staying power. To give you an idea, the Internet Movie Database lists no less than 56 aliases for him. Most directors don't have 56 films, Franco has 56 aliases.
Eugenie was made during Franco's partnership with producer Harry Alan Towers, which gave him access to such talent as Lee and Liljedahl. It was basically considered an X-rated film and shown in places like the "nudie booths" in Times Square. But it did open in Mann's Chinese Theater and did rather well, gaining a broader audience as a result. Eventually VCRs came into being and many of Franco's films were released on the bootleg market. But not Eugenie. Eugenie dropped into obscurity and finally oblivion, to the frustration of Eurocult fans who considered it a lost film. Eugenie stayed lost until Blue Underground put it on DVD. This momentous DVD release is a huge itch being scratched for many fans of cult cinema, and Blue Underground has done a fine job making the release an event. It is refreshing to see a studio imbue their release with excitement and anticipation. The packaging revels in the nature of Eugenie, proudly portraying the nymphlike Madame and Eugenie in all their naked glory. The liner notes are enthusiastic and passionate; written by Tim Lucas, co-author of "Obsession: the Films of Jess Franco," they detail the history of Eugenie and explain why the release of the DVD is such an affair. The 17 minutes of interviews are among the best I have seen: Jess Franco is a riot (and intense to boot), Lee gets a touch riled but hides it well. The photo gallery gives a sense of Eugenie's worldwide release.
The first thing that struck me about this film was its timeless, able construction. Eugenie evokes the best Bondian cinematography, the way cars and motorboats are framed against dusty roads and deep blue sea with a sense of menace and intrigue. Shot in 1969, it has elements of both conservative class and mod flair. The camera is impassive, almost languid, yet sensual as it caresses the scenes before it. The scenes unfold with lean simplicity, driving the plot forward even as they languor in themselves.
The craftsmanship is not limited to the camera. The actors are immersively convincing. Never did I sense artificiality as the characters took life on screen. Eugenie was absolutely innocent and captivating, so much so that I dreaded her inevitable corruption. Madame de St. Ange was so complex, beguiling, and chilling that it took a second viewing just to figure out the subtleties of her character. Maria Rohm is brilliant and tenacious in her portrayal of Madame.
Colors take on great significance in Eugenie. When first we see her, she is wearing red constrained in a black frock, symbolic of her passionate desire to escape her conservative environment. Later, in a pivotal scene, Mirvel entices the ladies with cigarettes (drug-laced, of course). He sits on the right of the couch smoking a blue cigarette, coolly masculine. Madame sits on the left smoking a red cigarette, seething femininity in a jealous green dress. Eugenie sits between them smoking a purple cigarette, the unwitting focus of their domination and internal struggle, the nexus of their intensity. This sense of color is overplayed at times. One gruesome scene is shot behind an oppressive red filter, visually suffocating the viewer. But the red abruptly gives way to a cool blue vista of water, releasing us with a start into the relaxed confusion shared by Eugenie.
The costumes speak volumes about the characters. Madame de St. Ange traipses about in attire that at first glance appears cosmopolitan and classy. But further inspection reveals the utterly uninhibited, easy access nature of her clothes: knit sweaters that reveal her flesh beneath, gauzy gowns that invite a hand to slip inside. You get the feeling that she uses clothing purely to control others, that she could walk around naked and still command the room.
The soundtrack is groovy, mellow, jarring, and organic. It lulls you into a stupor, then alerts you to hidden menace. It is both tranquil and maniac, but always cool. This Bruno Nicolai gem is sought after by many cult cinema collectors.
All of the elements of film craft come together nicely in Eugenie. The film is worth watching just to appreciate those elements. So what of the story?
Here the waters get murkier. The story is not pleasant. Though we are protected by a veneer of 1960s sensibility, Eugenie depicts the cold manipulation, molestation, rape, and emotional abuse of an innocent girl. This is where the cult part comes in: Eugenie is actually a psychological horror movie. As critic Casey Scott points out, Eugenie bears a more than passing resemblance to Cruel Intentions; I find that Eugenie surpasses the sadistic, manipulative cruelty of Cruel Intentions. Madame de St. Ange has the same charismatic depravity as Catherine Trammel from Basic Instinct (in fact, her maid reminds me of Catherine's plaything Roxy). There is no redemption to be found here.
At first, Eugenie beguiles through sensual, erotically charged scenes of love play. No late night Cinemax shenanigans here—these scenes are truly erotic. But later scenes of "love play," equally obsessional in their detail, are tinged with disgust as malevolent intent becomes clear. Before the film closes, Eugenie is battered physically, sexually, emotionally, and psychologically. All is captured unapologetically.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The more I discuss film, the more I believe that enjoyment of a film is all about perception. I expected cheap, B-movie tripe from Eugenie. I was taken aback as Franco's hand grasped my jaw and snapped my face to the center of the screen. "Watch me work," it seemed to say, "I am not a hack." But after reading my glowing reaction to the film, I fear you will expect high cinema and be disappointed. Eugenie is firmly a cult film and must be critiquéd within those bounds. Allow me to refine your expectations.
Eugenie was filmed in three to four weeks. It has a great tone, but is not a polished, gleaming film. It will not wow you with special effects, sparkling production, lavish sets, or intense action. It is intellectual, conceptual. I found Jack Nicholson's drive to the remote hotel in The Shining disquieting; Eugenie takes the same conceptual approach to horror, softened a bit by humanity. (Abject humanity, to be sure.) You have to work to uncover the horror, but the thought you put in will be rewarded. Part of Eugenie's appeal is its implicit discourse: the characters perform cruel acts, but the film does not point out or dwell on the cruelty. The viewer must think about the scene and the travesty becomes apparent.
The camera work in general is fantastic, but there are many times the scenes are simply out of focus. Badly, and for a long time. I'm convinced that at least two of these episodes were on purpose, but the rest could not have been intentional. It's like when you come home from vacation and develop the one picture you took of the albino raven, to find what looks like a blurry white towel. Too late to get another shot, unless you want to fly back to the Queen Charlotte Islands.
I mentioned before that we are protected by a veneer of 1960s sensibility. There are several times where violence is portrayed, but it is only symbolically carried out. Someone gets strangled, but the chain rests behind the neck, not wrapped around it. People get stabbed, but the "knife" clearly doesn't go in. It would be tempting to label this as corny or bad effects, but I believe it was due to the time Eugenie was made.
Some of the horror elements are so chokingly gothic that they have become clichéd now. Strangers arrive in red velvet cloaks, breeches, gowns, and the like. Hey, where's the Marilyn Manson concert?
Eugenie does some experimental psycho-beatnik stuff. Time has revealed better methods. Again, this is a 33 year old film.
Which brings me to the transfer. The transfer is rather grainy. However, I must point out that this film was thought lost. Unlike the Bond films or other highly distributed films, there are not many prints to take the transfer from. It is a minor miracle that the film was released at all. Because of that, I'm inclined to ignore the grain and just appreciate the generally clean and bright image.
Probably the biggest failing of Eugenie is temporal. The early stages do neat things with time. Brief passages seem long. For instance, there are periodic shots of boats on the water. They last only a few seconds, but something about them makes it seem like a lot of time has passed. Time is deftly, cleverly manipulated. Yet when Eugenie's transformation occurs, it seems abrupt and uncharacteristic. Technically de Sade was pointing out that cruelty is the first human inclination, but it seems out of place.
Finally, there is the inescapable fact that films of this type suit a limited range of tastes. To enjoy Eugenie, you probably need to have some appreciation for horror, Eurocult, or exploitation genres. The typical viewer, fond of Hollywood, may find Eugenie lame, confusing, or downright distasteful.
Eugenie is a film that shocked 1969 audiences, with interracial kissing, woman-to-woman fondling, and brother-sister sex games. It is beautifully filmed, sublimely acted (within its cult pedigree), and has reams of coolness, which makes it a good bet for modern audiences. If you get bored watching Connery drive his Aston Martin to a romantic rendezvous for some witty repartee, Eugenie will likely bore you. If you prefer graphic to simulated, you might find it lame. But if you can buy into the characters and appreciate the care of the filmmaking, Eugenie is a rewarding, disturbing piece of celluloid. In the interview, Franco states "Of all my films, it is the one I hate the least." If you know Franco and his staggering body of work, that's saying something.
If this movie sounds at all interesting to you, I recommend purchase for three reasons. First, you will want to see it more that once if you like it. Second, it is a refreshing change of pace for collections that may be Hollywood heavy. Finally, we should use our power as consumers to encourage studios to release risky films, conceptual films, or fringe films that push the envelope. If you aren't so sure about the cult genre in general, this is one of the better examples. A rental might open a new genre to you.
On the count of being a hack exploitation director, Jess Franco is found not guilty. This work clearly demonstrates motive, conscience, clarity, and professionalism. Producer Harry Alan Towers is commended for bringing Christopher Lee and Maria Rohm into the cast, but shame for pulling the wool over Lee's eyes. The court appreciates Tim Lucas' enthusiastic and entertaining liner notes. Blue Underground is granted a continuance for their fine work on production of this DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Perversion Stories: Interviews with Director Jess Franco, Producer Harry Alan Towers, and Stars Marie Liljedahl and Christopher Lee
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