Sunday, December 7, 2008
Jose Bénazeraf and La Nuit la plus longue (1964)
Known as "The Antonioni of Pigalle", Jose Bénazeraf had a very idiosyncratic approach to the fledgling genre of the softcore thriller. Toeing the line between the cool sophistication of contemporary art cinema (Godard probably being a bigger influence than Antonioni) and the tawdry skin flicks that were all the rage, Bénazeraf was the first, and only, hipster pornographer. His slow, deliberate camera movements, minimalist plots, and understated acting made his films a world apart from Russ Meyer, while his lingering views of nubile French chicks relegated his films to the smut market. There's no way around it, Bénazeraf is a tough sell. Seeing his films in the U.S. is not easy. Besides a couple titles in Something Weird Video's catalog, a few import tapes, and one in-print DVD (Night of Lust, a heavily re-edited version of Le concerto de la peur, best avoided), there hasn't been any Bénazeraf revival...until now. K Films in France have just released two box-sets consisting of 7 of the director's films plus a disc of "banned scenes". While the DVDs are NTSC and all-region, they do not contain English subtitles. Fuck subtitles. Crime, sex, existential despair---this is my mother tongue. I will be looking at all these films here.
A poetic realist film told in modernistic shorthand, La nuit la plus longue is one of the best known films from Bénazeraf due to Radley Metzger's Audubon Films releasing it, in slightly edited and embellished form, as Sexus. Driven by a spastic Chet Baker soundtrack, it’s about the kidnapping of a young rich girl who is taken to a remote country estate to wait for the 4 a.m. ransom payment deadline. Within this stagnant summer night the young captive, Virginia, is saved from being raped by the handsome, knife-wielding gang member Blackie. Fearing disloyalty to the gang, Frankie (played by frequent Jean Rollin collaborator Willy Braque) tries to steal Virginia away to the boss in the city, only to be gunned down by the lovelorn Blackie. With the plan in shambles and Blackie’s capture a certainty in the morning, the two lovers spend the night in each other’s arms.
The film's most striking set piece happens to be completely incidental to the plot. It's a well-choreographed lesbian striptease, where a butch woman stalks around a more voluptuous long-haired woman, cracking her with a cat-o-nine-tails. The typically French audience looks on with passing interest.
It's great to finally see this film without the Audubon prologue (where a narrator warns us that Sexus is "a film as unusual as its title") and in much better shape. A cursory comparison look at the VHS from First Run Features, did reveal an extra bit of footage of Virginia reading aloud about the Marquis de Sade that does not appear on the new DVD. The editing at this point (at about the one hour mark) in the French version gets a bit chaotic, with some strange overlay of music and sound effects. I chalk it up to Godardian experimentation.
So far, so good. I'm looking forward to exploring these sets further.