Friday, 20 August 2010

Bordel SS

France, during the Nazi occupation: A brothel services high ranking SS officers whilst some of the women working there secretly aid the resistance.

This Nazi-sexploitation entry from cult French auteur José Bénazéraf occupies an interesting position. On the one hand it’s clearly a film with something to say and an intelligence behind it. On the other hand it’s limited by the need to present various banal hardcore production numbers.

The film’s setting provides some excuses for its porn-style presentation of sex. The situation of the prostitutes in the brothel broadly echoes that of the actresses in the film, that of the SS men the presumed viewer.

For whether their real motivation is wealth, survival, or political (i.e. secretly serving the resistance) these women are required to make their male partners feel good. If that means lots of writhing, moaning and general acting then so be it.

The men, meanwhile, are desperate: Like their analogues in the audience, they just want to get off, to temporarily forget and get away from everything else in the world.

Bénazéraf, however, refuses to allow this escape, with the scenes inside the brothel being punctuated by news from outside and images of a resistance man going from one contact to another.

The most problematic scenes, from a film-theoretical perspective, are those that present the prostitutes by themselves. Some present insights, by again foregrounding the differences between actor and role and social actor and social role; it’s a nice Sartrean theme if we think of his famous analysis of the waiter who refuses to be reified as just a waiter. Others, however, present the same old pseudo-lesbian stuff for the male gaze in an entirely female situation where the “male gaze” ought to be absent.

Such images give you a sense of a tension between the filmmaker, backer, distributors and the audience. Without them might have something closer to a French version of Nagasi Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, an uncompromising, honest and hardcore film exploring limits and boundaries in relation to early 20th century fascism.

Here it’s worth noting that on the version I watched the title card introduces the film as none other than a Thanatos production or presentation: Can we say mass psychology of fascism, eros and civilisation, eros and thanatos, and all that stuff the ordinary raincoater viewer couldn’t give a toss about. (Not that he necessarily should, of course.)

Unfortunately commercial realities seem to have dictated otherwise: Be perverse but not too perverse, and certainly don’t attempt to pervert the idea of perversion.

And yet Bénazéraf has, in his own perverse way, succeeded. For the thing that is odd about the film in relation is perhaps how it is still frustrating from both mainstream and more sadomasochistic / Nazi-themed porn perspectives: If you want a straightforward hardcore film, there’s too much talk and not enough action, with this also being filmed in an at times unconventional manner, as with Bénazéraf’s penchant for mirror-based compositions. If you want something harder, then Bénazéraf declines to really deliver it, even in the climactic SS torture sequence: Certainly it’s still pretty disturbing and perverse, but not in relation to your obscure 1970s specialist pornos.

The key here is that word, frustration. It is, after all, the name of Bénazéraf’s best known film and is arguably the signature term to describe his work, which even on this showing deserves to be better known, especially for fans of Franco, Rollin, D’Amato or the other more usual suspects.

As a bit of bait and switch to further lure in the curious (even if they may then knowingly then be frustrated) I’ll conclude by mentioning that Brigitte Lahaie makes an appearance with brown rather than blonde hair.

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