It is incomprehensible how Jesus Franco could be seen as nothing more than a hack pornographer delivering shit movies specifically for the horny, braindead and decadent audience which consumed and sustained the lowest kind of sexploitation his producers were regularly dumping at that time, because all titles I’ve managed to watch from the hardcore side of his filmography are not far from this one, and it’s hard to imagine anyone expecting to be aroused ending up pleased with the experience the director provides them, not shocked with its thoroughly depressing tone and sex scenes way beyond an acceptable level of ugliness, of distastefulness, becoming downright grim at times. If Les Possédées du Diable is not Franco’s masterpiece, at the very least it’s his most troubling and disturbing work, and his crudest foray into horror.
The premise is basically another variation on the Faust myth trapped inside a cheap production of lesbian pornography, staged as a melodrama in a by-product from the distant worlds of Ken Russell’s The Devils and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. If there was some level of moral ambiguity to the obsessive images introduced and frequently reworked by the already prolific Franco (back in ’74), he finally resolves them from a decidedly pessimistic perspective.
Every ordinary activity, every yearning, every ideal is perverted. That is the unsettling slow-motion in the first and last encounters with Lorna; the desires and ensuing actions the characters believe could bring them some relief but always tie them closer to the invisible control of the stranger; parenthood and sexuality now symbols of inevitable insanity and death (the crabs, the incest, the sterility of all things, any relashionship or life resulting from a pact with the Devil); the life of the family mirroring the construction of a labyrinth ruled by Mephistopheles, where every value is corrupted and a simple walk through the modern city, or an attempted escape, leads to further entrapment in those very specific places and repetitive actions which protract the cycle.
The editing does not assemble spaces, but deliberately increases geographical alienation, with some shots that even appear recycled, relocating one action or expression to an entirely different context (another great example of the director taking advantage of poor resources), even if we recognize that the characters are nearby the main location, their steps seem perpetual, without any direction…
Typical of the the director’s work in that period, this is aesthetically pretty rough and unpolished (and the opposite would be a mistake, really), as if he could not shoot more than one take and had to reduce every scene to the bare minimum of camera set-ups (which most of the times leads to numerous jump cuts), but if this gives you the impression of lazy filmmaking, just watch the entire flashback explaining the pact (the casino sequence, the deal in the bedroom), the masterful moment when all its loose ideas start to fall into flace. Kudos to Gerard Kikoïne for making sense of it and presenting a comprehensible work out of Franco’s usually messy material, without taking away any nuances his bizarre camera work tends to achieve.
Even resources that can appear completely gratuitous or irritating at first, as the constant zooming followed by racking focus on seemingly unimportant elements, they make sense here, with characters staring at empty space, searching for something and hoping it materializes, before that outside influence gains any actual power over them. The most untrammeled one comes right at the start: credits roll over a panning shot of fruits that go in and out of focus, maybe without purpose, then followed by the prohibited encounter, by snapshots of images that will grow more and more sinister as the story progresses. If I remember well, every character has one of these moments, the mother above all, with the strange and unflattering zooms in her genitalia, yes, a Franco trademark from that point on, but the shot here is deformed, far from fetishistic, it is a film about perverted parenthood and damned fates after all, and the vagina transforms into a symbol of death.
That approach also makes the subjective shots in the asylum weirder and build a distinctive relashionsip between Lorna and the unknown woman. Likewise, and it appears they were intended as fades, the jarring cuts of Lina Romay’s obsessive look to a wall and then to Stanford’s face bring a whole different meaning to their scenes, and there’s just something about that unreadable last scene, in Romay’s performance… Something Zulawski and Trier were aiming for and never quite achieved, talking about darker, disturbing looks at the modern world through the frustrations and madness of a female character, maybe that is the price you pay for distorted notions of artistry. Don’t take me wrong, I admire Possession and Antichrist, but the impact of such respectable movies are fairly attenuated in comparasion to Les Possédées du Diable‘s coarse, sordid, sheer insanity.
It’s incredible how much the director can extract from such a limited project, especially being as unpretentious as Franco is, getting developed ideas out of crass technique, managing to create more clear rhetorical pieces than anything the vulgar intellectualism of José Benázeraf (though a good filmmaker) and Jean-Claude Brisseau (not at all) coud ever dream of achieving (what stays in those works is only the ambition for something greater), with probably no intention to deliver better than efficient, moody genre fare. It’s the same case with Jean Rollin and his muddled ideas becoming something far more profound through his unquestionably sincere presentation. For many years I had doubts about Franco, but now I need to admit he was one the greatests.