Sunday, August 28, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: The French Sex Murders

Could this be the cheapest, shoddiest, most unintentionally funny giallo ever made? A film so lurid in its intent and retarded in its aesthetic that it makes ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ look like Fellini.

You know, I rather think it could.

On paper, it ought to be brilliant: wrong man shenanigans, a hint of the supernatural, the pseudo-scientific conceits of ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’ and ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’, eye-candy aplenty (Rosalba Neri, Anita Ekberg, Barbara Bouchet, Evelyne Kraft) and a suitably sleazy milieu courtesy of the brothel setting.

The problem is in the execution. Budgetary limitations scupper the opening sequence: a gender-disguised individual is on the run, police cars and on-foot gendarmes in hot pursuit. Said individual attempts to evade the authorities by hoofing it up the Eiffel Tower, which demonstrates all the logic of shimmying up a telegraph pole and taunting those at the foot of it with cries of, “Climb up and catch me, then, fuckos.” Evidently realizing that having got so far up, the only way is down – and with the tenacious Inspector Pontaine (Robert Sacchi) just a heartbeat behind – our felonious fugitive leaps to their death, director Ferdinando Merighi indelibly searing his audience’s collective eyeballs with this image:

That’s right, folks: a bit of black paper cut out in the vague shape of a human figure is dangled in front of a static shot of the Eiffel Tower. Inspector Pontaine lights a cigarette and glowers balefully at the camera in best Humphrey Bogart fashion, a bit of mumbled voiceover tells us how it all started, and the rest of the film unfolds in flashback. (A word on Pontaine: Sacchi looks a hell of a lot like Humphrey Bogart, a resemblance which might have given ‘The French Sex Murders’ a shot of much needed gravitas; unfortunately, his characterization of Pontaine is based on a really bad Humphrey Bogart impersonation. A really bad one.)

Anyway, how the whole thing gets started is like this: thuggish jewel thief Antoine Gottvalles (Pietro Martellanza) pulls off a heist by the sophisticated means of taking a crowbar to a display cabinet, scooping out its contents and shoving them in the pockets of his trenchcoat. Throughout this meticulous and professional operation, he neglects to wear gloves and touches every surface possible. Fuckin’ Raffles, this dude!

Having made a hasty exit from the premises (the only jewellers in Paris, it would seem, without an alarm system), does he then lie low till he can offload the goods? Or does he risk it and go straight to his fence? Maybe he has a buyer lined up already and exchanges the stones for cold hard cash in an underground car park before getting the fuck out of Dodge Paris.

Mais non. Our boy hightails it straight to the nearest whorehouse where Madame Collette (Ekberg) hesitates about letting him, knowing that he’s temperamental, unpredictable and obsessed with the voluptuous Francine (Bouchet). Nonetheless, a john’s a john and he’s good for the money so she packs him off to Francine’s room while she attends to the requirements of two high-rollers who are such respectable pillars of the community that their attendance at Madame Collette’s den of inquity is surreptitious to say the least. (This being a sleazy giallo directed by the staggeringly inept Merighi, surreptitiousness equates to creeping about swathed in a big shiny capes with an extravagant hoods that make them look like extras in some hallucinatory conflation of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Abba: the Movie’ and the KKK scene from ‘Blazing Saddles’.)

But I digress. Antoine indulges in a little gentlemen’s relish with the sultry Francine, during which interlude he plies her with the stolen jewels (smooth, bro, reeeeaaaal smooth) and begs her to come away with him. To, I don’t know, a life of sitting outside courtrooms or trying to secure the services of a solicitor at three in the morning. Something like that. Y’know, every girl’s dream.

Anyhow, the reality of things is brought home when Madame Collette calls to Francine to get finished with Antoine and service the next client. At this point, Antoine turns psycho, calls her a “filthy whore” (which is a bit rich, since he just tried to buy her affections with a fuckton of stolen goods) and starts knocking her about viciously.

Exiting the brothel, Antoine attracts the attention of a gendarme on the beat and does his best to downplay any hint of suspicious behaviour by doing a cartoon double-take and running like hell. He fetches up at the house of ex-wife Marianne (Neri).

Pearl’s Marianne’s a singer. In a nightclub. Owned by the corpulent Pepi (Rolf Eden). She’s entertaining Pepi when Antoine turns up and there follows an awkward moment which is only resolved when, after much soul-searching, the various parties discuss their romantic entanglements in a sensitive character-driven scene. No, wait; what the fuck am I talking about? Marianne tells Antoine to go to hell and Pepi takes a swing at him and the door slams in his face.

The long and short of it is that Francine is found dead by Madame Collette and Randall (Renato Romano), an American writer hanging around at the brothel to, ahem, research a new book (pmsl). Shortly afterwards, Antoine is picked up by the law, charged with Francine’s murder and sentenced to death. From the dock, he protests his innocence and curses everyone at the brothel that night. While he rants, the film inverts to negative. For a moment, I thought that this was an effective, if somewhat heavy-handed, means of emphasizing the intensity of Antoine’s POV as he looks out at the people in the courtroom, one of whom is the real killer. But then Merighi cuts, the POV is broken and the next shot is also in negative, so I was ascribing far too much intelligence and subtlety to the production and the likeliest explanation is a processing error at the lab which no-one noticed (or was bothered about) during editing.

Shit, I’ve hit 1,000 words already and I’m still on the synopsis. Still, I’m not convinced that I’ve adequately conveyed thus far just how egregious ‘The French Sex Murders’ truly is, so I beg your forbearance for a while longer.

Before Antoine can be dealt with by the full might of the law, he escapes. Quite how he manages this is left unexplained. I’m again guessing at budgetary limitations. This fairly important narrative development is relegated to Randall catching a news report on TV during a rare moment when he’s not at Madame Collette’s knocking boots doing research. When we next see Antoine, he’s driving a car around Paris and getting snarled up in traffic. So he pulls over and nicks a motorbike. This takes him out of the city, but he runs into a roundblock which he evades by driving round it (I am not making this up!). A gendarme jumps in front of him as if he’s a midfielder going for a tackle, then seems to remember that the script calls for Antoine to remain at liberty for another couple of pages and obligingly falls over. Antoine goes speeding off (it looks like he’s doing all of 15mph), turns a corner, sees a truck parked by the side of the road with its tailgate lowered, panics, slides off the bike and a lump of papier mache that’s supposed to be his head but looks like the work of a five-year-old at art class on a day when he was really bored intersects with the tailgate and goes rolling down the road.

At which point the unlamented Antoine departs this world, the film and my review. Oh, by the way, we’re only half an hour into the movie at this point. But fear not, the synopsis kicks into high gear at this point: a series of murders occur at Madame Collette’s house of vice, the modus operandi sufficiently similar to Francine’s murder to cast doubt on Antoine’s conviction. The presiding judge orders the case reopened. Peripherally, research scientist Professor Waldemar (Howard Vernon) – an old friend of the judge’s – seeks permission to remove Antoine’s eyeballs in order to isolate the final image recorded on his retinas and thus identify the killer. Everyone involved in the making of the film seems to have forgotten that while Antoine may well have clocked the real killer in the courtroom, the last thing he ever saw was the tailgate of a heavy goods vehicle. But hey-ho.

As the bodies pile up, Waldemar’s attention to his work is deflected by his concerns over the burgeoning romance between his daughter Eleanore (Kraft) and his precocious assistant, a subplot that seems to have nothing to do with anything … Or does it?

‘The French Sex Murders’ is a work of such unmitigated awfulness that its bad acting (particularly Martellanza), bargain basement production values (a desk and a telephone stand in for a police station, a few test tubes and a Bunsen burner for a lab), absence of a protagonist (the script continually flirts with establishing, variously, Pontaine, Marianne, Randall and Waldemar as the main character, finally settling on none of them), incomprehensible directorial decisions (virtually every murder is repeated four or five times in a series of discontiguous cuts, each time through a differently coloured filter) and complete indifference to continuity add up to something that genuinely needs to be seen to be (dis)believed.

From Ekberg’s gravity-defying bouffant hairdo to the most arbitrarily shoehorned in and unerotically shot sex scene outside of a Joe D’Amato film, from the complete squandering of gialli legends Bouchet and Neri in nothing roles to the yawnsome final act revelation, from the hamfisted exposition to the abject lack of pacing in anything remotely resembling an action scene, nearly every frame of ‘The French Sex Murders’ offers something to gape at in slack-jawed amazement. It takes a special kind of anti-talent to make a film this bad, and for that reason alone it’s unmissable.

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