Desdemona lives on a remote island with her strange family: her father Mario Pontecorvo, her stepmother Dulcinea and her mentally retarded sister Pulova. The background is one of endless radio and TV broadcasts of commercials and ridiculous programmes. Desdemona tries to ward off her boredom by masturbating, provoking her father or teaching her sister how to play with herself. She even goes as far as asking her father if he would fancy raping her. The father and Dulcinea do not have a successful sex life and he would seem to be constantly haunted by his past. Mario is an expatriate Argentinean actor who claims to be a political refugee. Dulcinea hates her stepdaughters and will not stop at beating or abusing them if she deems it necessary. The family routine is interrupted with the arrival of a very virile hunter who will contribute even further to break down the family relationships. First, he fucks with the flighty Desdemona and Dulcinea herself is to later surrender herself to him in order to satisfy her sexual desires, while Mario has no choice but to look on helplessly at what is happening.
It soon turns out that the hunter is really a journalist who is investigating Mario Pontecorvo’s life, and reveals that the latter’s stories about his being an exiled artist are false, following which he and Dulcinea flee from the island. At this point, Mario loses all contact with reality and, dressed in the uniform of a sixteenth-century Spanish soldier, he starts calling his daughter Ophelia and declaiming on the beach like a character out of Shakespeare, as he hears the imaginary applause of his theatre public. Now completely mad, standing by the sea, he takes his life with a dagger. As she walks on the shore, pushing her sister on a wheelchair, Desdemona comes to the realisation she will never leave the island.
Possibly the least familiar of what is already one of the most obscure periods in Jess Franco’s career, which is saying a lot, this is a drama with touches of black comedy, satire, a great deal of touches, lots of aberrant sex and an overwhelming nihilism. The series of films produced by Emilio Larraga’s Golden Films company, ultimately amount to a veritable cycle, with its own, highly recognisable marks of identity. Made between 1981 and 1985, roughly speaking, with a staple skeleton crew and usually on Murcian or Andalusian locations, the Golden Films productions are noted for their Mediterranean seaside aesthetic (white houses, terraces, beaches, maritime horizons and a great deal of sun), as well as for a greater creative freedom than was usual. Incorporating elements from the commercially fashionable elements from the softcore trend at the time, Jess Franco was able to move within quite liberal formal parameters, which allowed him to experiment with images, compositions, focal lengths, or even with pacing, all to a larger extent than ever before. MACUMBA SEXUAL, GEMIDOS DE PLACER or LA MANSIÓN DE LOS MUERTOS VIVIENTES are just a few of the films of this period whose commercial career was sadly marred by poor distribution and an unfortunate producer.
While the genres of these films vary considerably (fantasy, comedy, drama, children’s films), the Golden Films cycle always leaves an aftertaste of bitterness and decadence, a kind of quasi-metaphysical sense of disillusion that bears much on the locations and the architecture, as well as, I would go as far as saying, the agitated political and social climate in Spain in the early eighties. LA CASA DE LAS MUJERES PERDIDAS, in this sense, is, in the words of Jess Franco himself, “one of the most Spanish films I’ve ever made, and nobody has seen it”. Early in the film, Antonio Mayans is seen reading out a copy of the film magazine FOTOGRAMAS (with an ad for the children’s film LAS AVENTURAS DE ENRIQUE Y ANA on the back cover), with many ridiculous news items on Julio Iglesias, the pop duo Los Pecos, TV personality Mari Cruz Soriano, the current Spanish premier Calvo Sotelo or Margaret Thatcher. And the soundtrack is full of sounds made by radio or TV sets which we don’t get to see, even if we assume that they’re on, with many commercials, soap operas and other outrageous programmes, all constituting a parody of TV at its trashiest. It looks as if the director was out get some themes that haunted him out his system, railing against the world of show business, the media, institutional culture and popular culture in general.
The disintegration of this dysfunctional family, on the other hand, has reminiscences of quite a different register, a devastating, uncomfortable, almost Bergmanesque drama, which despite the explicitness of many scenes, gives the sensation of concealing far more squalor than it actually shows. If the everyday life of this family is one of constant masturbation, frustrated sexual encounters, humiliations and floggings, the viewer is led to wonder about what it is that is really tormenting these people’s minds. Sex would seem to be the sole manner of love they know about, which is why they have sex with another, free of any taboos, although Desdemona (Lina Romay, billed as “Candy Coster”) would want to get this love from her father, but despite her insinuations in this respect, he is not willing to give her that. That’s why when she sees her father screwing with Dulcinea, what we see on her face is a suffering and loneliness that only masturbation can mitigate. Tony Skios, the hunter that arrives unexpectedly from the outside, gives the impression of being the change everybody was waiting for. His arrival, in fact does bring a certain “normality” to the film (for one thing, we stop hearing the TV noises), but this will only serve the purpose of bringing that family that would not face its own rottenness back to reality, which leads to the tragic ending. Some have seen the hunter as a figure in the manner of Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s TEOREMA, a divine or diabolical figure – according to one’s taste – that makes them think about their very existence and pushes them to act accordingly.
Others have mentioned Buñuel as the main influence behind LA CASA… and this Buñuelian connection may come from Jean-Claude Carrière, who had collaborated on the scripts of BELLE DE JOUR and EL DISCRETO ENCANTO DE LA BURGUESÍA, and with whom Jess had worked before: “Carrière soon became so prestigious that I could not afford employing him, even if he would have given me a special price for friendship. We worked very well together, for he’s even madder than I am, and the results show in his films. Once we were in this Parisian coffee house waiting for (Serge) Silberman, and I came up with the idea of writing a story instead of sitting around doing nothing. The result was a script that he eventually gave me as a gift, and this was what I used for LA CASA DE LAS MUJERES PERDIDAS. I’ve recently returned to the same premise for one of my latest films, BROKEN DOLLS.”
Juan Soler’s gloomy photography opens and closes the film with those beautiful infinite horizons that were so common in Franco’s films of the time, but for the rest of the film, mostly set in claustrophobic interiors, he seeks to frame many characters within the same shot, apply deep focus shooting to very small rooms, and linger on the faces of Lina Romay and Carmen Carrión (Dulcinea). The fragility of Lina’s face, simultaneously roguish and innocent, contrasts with the minatory harshness of Carrion’s, the actress looking more evil than ever, like some fairy-tale stepmother. This duel of close-ups is undoubtedly one of the film’s visual successes. On this occasion, however, it is not so much the image Franco experiments with as the diegetic sound, as in that scene in which Carmen Carrión subdues Lina, forcing her to kiss her feet and crotch as we hear a detergent and car commercials with frenetic synthesiser jingles. The effect is simultaneously disturbing, comic and unpleasant. The critic Alain Petit has compared this with the use made by Pedro Almodóvar in his first films, but what is mere spoofing in Almodóvar, acquires more cynical and perverse undertones with Franco.
LA CASA DE LAS MUJERES PERDIDAS is a bitter film, sometimes grotesque and sometimes pathetic, whose elements of humour, rather than act as a relief for the viewer, tend to add a further edge of bizarreness to its cold, morbid atmosphere, as happens with that “Winter Sonata” that is intermittently heard throughout. It is undoubtedly one of the most bizarre films of this fascinating period. — Nzoog Wahrlfehen