Paula (Carmen Montes), a dancer at a strip club, is arrested for the murder of Paula (Paula Davis), a fellow dancer. The arresting officer (Lina Romay) questions the near-catatonic Paula, and the rest of the film is a slow-motion, flashback of the dead Paula dancing, the two women making love, and the murder. Once the slow-mo begins, there is no further dialogue, except for a cryptic fable that Paula tells to the camera.
Jess Franco’s latest effort is his most minimalist, and in some ways most personal, film to date. There is no set to speak of: the film was obviously shot in Franco and Romay’s apartment, which doubles for both the home of the Paulas and, perhaps, the police station. I say “perhaps” because the notion of any definable space is a very tenuous one in this film. The only set dressing consists of a few aluminum screens, which play a role in the zero-budgeted surrealist effects. As has been pointed out elsewhere, there is nothing groundbreaking about the effects the Franco conjures here. The kaleidoscopic images, frequently involving Davis fusing and splitting from her double, would not have been out of place in the 1960s, and aren’t going to break the back of even the most basic computer editing suite today.
However, it’s what Franco does with these basic building blocks that are interesting. This is a Franco film stripped to its very core, with only two of his most recurring obsessions (lesbianism and jazz) remaining. If you are not familiar with the man’s work, don’t bother reading any further. This film will be an intolerable ordeal for you. For the rest of you, imagine the dream sequence from Vampyros Lesbos stretched to the entire movie (and on an even more reduced budget), and you have some idea of what’s in store for you here.
Franco has, it seems to me, come as close as he can to actually filming his desire itself. A single scene of dancing and seduction is broken down and anatomized. Its participants themselves becoming abstract shapes and colours – undulating flesh almost indistinguishable from billowing curtains. Individual shots go on so long, with so little happening (or happening so slowly) that the viewer’s eye ranges all over the frame, taking in the texture of a wall, of pores, of the grain of the image itself. The distorted images, simple though they may be, take on Rorschach-blot importance, again transforming Davis’s body into so many symbols (some distinctly threatening) of the shape of desire.
This would be a very easy film to dismiss, but I think it would be a mistake to do so. It is not easy to sit through, but it does pay off, I think – the climax is sudden and shocking, even with the very, very rudimentary makeup involved.
The budget is reflected in the picture quality, which is good, all things considered. Yes, there is grain here, and the blacks are variable, but given the nature of the film, it is difficult to imagine the contrary being the case. The transfer itself is fine, though, and seems true to the film’s colours (which are, admittedly, interesting). The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Apart from the first few minutes, and one or two lines scattered throughout the rest of the film, this is, for all practical purposes, a silent movie. What little dialogue there is, is clear, but there are no sound effects. Instead, we have the late Friedrich Gulda’s jazz score. Rather than being composed for the film, the film was composed for the music. The 2.0 track does well by the score. I might perhaps have wished a slightly stronger bass, but we’re really down to questions of taste here.
Jess Franco Intro: (1:26) Not too much here, just Franco welcoming us to his film, which he had completed only half an hour before doing this bit.
Jess Franco on Contemporary Filmmaking: (17:42) Franco’s love of cinema shines through here, as does his concern for its future (the state of the Spanish film industry is, in his opinion, dire). He also talks about the need for cinema to appeal to the masses (a belief that might seem at odds with the difficult movie he has made here, and yet even this does have plenty of exploitation appeal, one could argue). He also expounds on his great hopes for the future of film: young filmmakers and, most particularly, women directors. His impassioned defense of the latter borders on a call to arms.
Jess Franco on Paula-Paula: (8:33) Here Franco enthuses about the process involved in making the film, one which he thoroughly enjoyed. He doesn’t know yet if he likes the end result, but this has ever been so with Franco. He also talks more about the music and composer Gulda (who, among other things, scored Franco’s Succubus).
Franco is taking risks here, breaking with some of the most basic conventions of narrative filmmaking, and in such a way that, I think, demands that we ask why. Is this his best, most rewarding film? Certainly not. But just as certainly, I can’t get it out of my head.