In an age of DVD and late night softcore cable, it’s easy to forget there was a time when onscreen nudity and sexual
suggestion were available only in theaters, usually located in the bad side of town, and filled with heavy breathing and bad
smells. Sometimes these theaters were huge old relics of a bygone era, with collapsing balconies that once may have housed
opera patrons, sometimes mere storefronts, empty spaces set up with folding chairs and collapsible screens on the fly. In
the pre-hardcore year of 1967, many of these films were European imports that came over to the states under the guise of “art.”
Sometimes, as in the case of Succubus, they lived up to that title.
Succubus AKA Necronomicon the “Sensation of 1967, “the zenith of the “Eurosleaze” genre, certainly
of the career of its prolific director, Jess Franco, came over to this country with a huge publicity campaign thanks to its
rich playboy producer, Adrian Hoven. Fritz Lang himself was on record as praising Succubus as a work of art, lending its
fractured dream poetry an unquestionable stamp of authenticity. Bookended with scenes of sadomasochistic torture on a nightclub
stage, Succubus knowingly contextualizes issues of performance, feminine mystique, the elastic circularity of time, the obsessive
desire of the male (and female) gaze and body politics -- all of which makes it function as the long lost missing link between
Hitchcock’s Vertigo and David Lynch’s Muholland Drive.
Unlike many films of its era which alternate kinky murders with dimwittedly patriarchal investigation padding, Succubus
never exits its dream-like ellipsis as it follows the amnesiac nightclub performer, Lorna (Janine Reynaud), through a series
of trysts, murders, mind games, and decadent hallucinations. All the while Lorna is watched over by a remote figure, presumably
Satan, who is able to act in and through others (a common theme in Lynch's work as well, or available in Hitchcock via the
master's own cameos) and played by the film’s producer, Adrian Hoven. Blue eyed Franco regular Jack Taylor plays Lorna’s
manager and lover, William Francis Mulligan. Between these two men—as well as several other men and women throughout
the film—Lorna oscillates in an amnesiac-libidinal tug of war.
Strange characters come up to her at the various soirees, seeminglu thrilled to have found her at last, as if, ala
Scottie in Vertigo, they've been looking and looking for Lorna since they last met. She merely stares at these interlopers
blankly, not doubting what they say, but also not caring. In this context, the pick-up line, “Haven’t we met before?”
takes on an extra creepy overtone. Anything that happened before the credits of the film--anything that we have not seen on-screen--does
not exist for Lorna or for us. Thus relationships between Lorna and her lovers are always in flux; after her first performance
for example, Lorna mysteriously appears at Mulligan’s front door. He’s already in his bathrobe and when he answers
the door seems to not remember who she is. As viewers, we can’t tell whether she’s just shown up uninvited like
a stalker from the club or whether they in fact live together and are just playing a sexy game, or whether this is merely
the result of language difficulties.
Whatever the real truth might be, the not knowing works
to both excite and disconcert. As the pair move playfully into the bedroom, we begin to think that maybe Lorna herself isn’t
sure why she came there. Anyone who has ever tried to hide the fact that they don’t remember someone who knows them
will relate: is William hoping he will eventually "come to" and remember whether or not he actually invited this girl over?
Is she taking advantage of his amnesia, or is he taking advantage of hers? In the cat and mouse game of who remembers what,
it’s the being in the moment that counts, and Franco’s sense of the moment, and the erotic by extension, is very
advanced—and perfectly suited to the world of jetsetting, booze-swilling, partner swapping glitterati of swingin’
From there the film just keeps rolling back and forth through a haze of flashbacks, dreams and different countries. Lorna
feels her way through events by the impulses coming from her unconscious, be they to seduce, kill or spout poetic monologues.
She bears her amnesia close to the vest and in this way she is a perfect stand in for the viewer, the "art film" viewer in
particular, who may be forever wondering what's going on in the narrative themselves. We've all walked into the middle of
a movie before, and had to instantly guess what was going on and who was what to who, people sshhh-ing us if we asked what
was going on. So wither la Succubus? Is Franco a bad director with no vision, or is he a genius whose films improve
on repeat viewings?” To paraphrase the stilted English dialog in the film “What good would it do to freak out
about amnesia when not knowing can be so pleasurable?”
Here’s a heady example: Lorna wakes up alone, fully dressed, on the beach, to the cries of a beautiful blonde with a
fancy roadster who picks her up, claiming they have a date. We don’t know who this girl is and neither does Lorna, but
Lorna acts compliant, and drives the girl to an old villa by the sea where they try on an array of costumes from different
periods of Lorna’s life. Later the girl is attacked (?) by mannequins and stabbed (?) by Lorna. When Lorna wakes up
the next morning she thinks her memory of the girl was a dream. Then when she finds the corpse under a pile of clothes, and
screams. But she can’t be certain now what is reality and what is a dream. Is she still dreaming? Either way, the similarities
between this lesbian encounter and that in Mulholland Drive make for interesting discussion of female mirroring and
identity. The combination of amnesia and trying on old costumes is reminiscent of Vertigo (as when Kim Novak is hypnotized
by the painting of Carlotta Vance) and Antonioni’s L'Aventura, wherein the ancient architecture of Europe is
continually contrasted with the lovely youthful emptiness of Monica Vitti.
Where Franco takes the ball and runs with it faster than Hitchcock, Antonioni or Lynch is with the casting of Reynaud, who
(almost) literally eats younger, blonde ingénues for breakfast. Standing tall and firm in her late 30s, tall with long Satanic
red hair, a cruel cunning mouth, wearing sleek Karl Lagerfeld dresses, zipping around in a snazzy red roadster, or stalking
through bedrooms naked, she displays such languor and ease mere mortal actors seem stiff around her.
And of course, with the ancient architecture of Europe backing her up, Lorna’s amnesia stretches back far longer than
her American counterparts: the amnesiacs in Memento and Mulholland Drive can only regress a little ways in their young, gaudy,
pre-fab countrysides. Vertigo’s Carlotta Vance has to come from the pre-U.S., version of California, requiring long
drives in Scottie’s car out to nationally preserved landmarks. Lorna’s European location allows for so much ancient
architecture all around her that her amnesia can slide back through several centuries without much effort.
That’s all in one direction, though, in the other is a very hip edge that links the film with the best of the French
nouvelle vague in its post-modern funciton as a contemporary critique of cinema within the context of the cinema itself. Throughout
the film characters talk about the current artsy films of the day. Lorna at one point sticks up for Lang and Godard against
a young man who tells her all of cinema has become puerile. Elsewhere, Mulligan does a very Godard-esque offscreen voiceover
as he races along a stretch of West Berlin autobahn, during which he comments on the French new wave, cementing a neat little
loop of self-referentiality fitting in perfectly with the times.
Of course the average American cineaste without a taste for the bizarre may risk falling into the trap of knee-jerk condemnation.
How can this film be art if it’s so sleazy? The same reason that it does not work as sleaze, of course, which is why
Lang understood and praised it—recognizing art as opposed to not having his expectations of sleaze met, which is what
throws an American audience so conditioned to treat movies as commodities designed to deliver a certain experience (crying
at a chick flick, or pulse-quickening at a thriller, for example). Watching Franco with a normal American mind, expecting
the trappings of a traditional sex film, horror film, thriller, etc., will be a disappointment. But he is even better than
Sergio Leone at capturing his characters in the act of looking. Antonioni had proven with L’Aventura that shots of a
beautiful woman standing in front of an ocean or a castle can be held for a long time, that looking at someone looking can
enrapture an audience. An American director would be bewildered by this. How can Monica Vitti be so hypnotic if she so rarely
shows off her cleavage? Yet Vitti is achingly vulnerable because her exterior shell is so hard, the thickness unevenly spread.
With Reynaud the thickness is spread evenly and she can walk around naked down the street and be the master of her domain,
the way Vitti never could, no matter how fully clothed.
Just as the film progresses in the circular pattern
of obsessive/compulsive behavior, so to does Lorna's sideways journey towards self-discovery continually drive her deeper
into murder and madness. The sex in the film seldom ends happily, and the killing is just the final pleasure. Amnesia makes
the idea of Lorna having former lives as queens and Satanic rulers as believable as anything else, and her inability to tell
what is a dream and what is real frees her from moral responsibility (the way a dreamer will often act out their basest urges
when they realize they are dreaming). Thus, when Reynaud stares at a lover and Franco’s camera stares at her, it creates
a ring of cold detachment that American viewers who have learned to love the subtle pleasures of Antonioni, Hithcock and Godard
would do well to explore, gauging their sometimes hostile reactions to the film not from the point of view of a critic but
from the point of view of a viewer of a viewer, provoked out of their traditional responses to film in the playful, modernist
and reflexive sense which we expect from our cinematic artistes but distrust from our sleaze merchants.
by Erich Kuersten