Also known as:
L' enfer dans la peau
La nuit la plus longue
It's probably well overdue that a film directed by French auteur José Bénazéraf appears in these pages. There's a lot to choose from, with titles like Frustration, Sin on the Beach and Night of Lust, but Sexus is as good a starting place as any. While it's a crime film on the topmost surface, there some odd touches and details that make it stand out in the oddball sexual arena. It's shot in glorious black-and-white, with an artistic sensibility that makes Bénazéraf a one-of-a-kind director. Add a distinctive Chet Baker score, and you're in French beatnik heaven.
After a strange scene of a dark-skinned woman stripping for a sleeping woman lying on a couch, our male narrator lets us know that this film, due it's stripping scenes, is only viewable by those over eighteen. As we're told, the film we are about to see is a "A Study of Physical Excess!". Well, let's see about that. Eventually the blonde woman wakes from her trance and stands up gyrating, though she's yet to disrobe. Cut to the main story. Walking nervously through the streets of, I guess we can presume Paris, the beautiful heiress Virginia (Virginie Solenn) is kidnapped at gunpoint in the crowd, by Blackie (Alain Tissier) and Carl (Yves Duffaut). Taken back to their hideout in the country, it becomes apparent she's going to be ransomed for a fortune from her rich father. The more brutish Carl tries to kiss her but she scratches deep gouges in his cheeks. The more withdrawn Blackie looks on dissaprovingly, and carries her to a bedroom when Carl shoves her over. Another female accomplice, of whom we never find out her name, looks on sadly.
For the kidnappers, much of the time consists of sitting around, looking at the clock on the wall, waiting on the odd phone call, arm-wrestling and tedious conversation. Strangely enough, given her predicament, even Virginia is bored for the most part. After another phone call, another hood enters the house, the weaselly Frankie (Willy Braque). The dynamic changes, with Frankie threatening the calmer Blackie - whom he doesn't believe has the guts to go through with the plan - with a knife and generally causing trouble. In front of everyone, he cuts the female kidnapper's top and bra off with his switchblade. Virginia flees the house, aware of a new danger close to her now. Carl gives chase into the forest. In a surreal scene Virgina takes off her top and lies on the grass, while Carl voyeuristically watches. She then takes off her skirt and strolls further into the forest. As Frankie holds his knife, the female kidnapper strips completely nude for him, and the two come into an embrace. Virginia, clothed again, takes refuge in an old barn. Did her strip beforehand really happen or was it all in Carl's mind? We never know. A shirtless Carl attacks her and attempts to rape her. Bénazéraf films this in an interesting way, with lots of swirling camera motion from the point of view of Virginia. Before Carl can get too far though, Blackie comes to the rescue and ends up in a long, balletic knife-fight with Carl, as only the French do best. Reluctantly, he ends up stabbing him dead. The disintegration of the team has begun.
Virginia attempts to flee into the forest again, but Blackie calls to Frankie and they trap the disheartened girl again. Blackie and Frankie fight again and Frankie decides to take the girl and the money for himself. At gunpoint he forces her into his cute little sports-car and takes off, but Blackie forces him out and ends up shooting him dead in a gunfight. Blackie is sorry though, as he later tells Virginia and the other woman. They were his only friends. The plan is to continue though, and although Virginia tries to appeal to his better nature, Blackie calmly tells her that he hates her and just wants her for her money, because she thinks the 'world was made for her', and that girls like her are just 'little teasers'. At one point he points a gun at Virginia in frustration but can't go through with it, as there's been 'so many murders'. Later the female kidnapper goes to a nightclub where the big bossman frequents, to get more updates on the plan. It's one hell of a nightclub though, with one hell of an act as we'll now observe.
In a quasi S&M scenario, a short-haired woman dressed in a man's shirt and jeans, with a felt cat-o'-nine-tails, does an erotic dance, stripping with a more feminine, long-haired dancer who pretends to be tied to a pole. As Chet Baker's thumping bongoes and trumpets infuse the scene, we delve again into the more surreal and sexual moments of Sexus. Eventually the 'manly' girl is topless and the 'femine' girl is down to a g-string. It's a dance of gyrating, sapphic seduction the likes of which you won't often see on film. As this strip progresses, Blackie and Virginia finally profess their love for each other. They make love in a very artistic scene, as Bénazéraf shows us Virginia's hands holding bed-rails, and different parts of the lover's entwined bodies. It was interesting how you don't need to show thrusting naked bodies to create a feeling of eroticism. Later the new lovers bask in each other's warm bodies, although obviously Virginie Solenn was a bit shy about showing her breasts as she constantly has her hands over them.
Blackie tells Virginia that he's doomed, now that he's allowed Virginia to live. That the police or the gang will track him down wherever he goes. That he always thought who shot faster was the man who had it all, but now realises that love is the most important thing in life. Not knowing what to do next, Blackie and Virginia leave the hideout. Driving down a dirt road, they're cornered by plainclothes detectives and Virginia leave Blackie, reluctantly. Blackie drives off, and then leaves the car to escape on foot. Eventually he's cornered by more police and accepts his fate. We see the girls from the opening strip-scene before the main storyline started, complete their disrobing, and then the S&M striptease again.
Bénazéraf is obviously an accomplished filmmaker, and achieves an obviously very 'French', but still unique mood with Sexus. The pace is slow and dialogue is kept to a minimum, often even repeated. We regularly focus on objects like the clock in the hideout, as scenes progress. Fades, distortion and camera movement are all used to compelling effect. We seemed to be caught in a delerium of sexuality and the opening and middle-point strip-acts underscore this fact. Chet Baker's varied jazz score also pushes Sexus into the world of the erotic unconsciousness with the sexual scenes getting a particularly feverish treatment. On the acting front Alain Tissier as Blackie is gallicly handsome, and Virginie Solenn captures the beauty of the sixties as well as I've ever seen. The scene when Blackie tells Virginia he 'hates' her, as she stares at him with a tiny, sad smile on her face, is one of the most amazing portraits of beauty I've witnessed in cinema. I've tried to capture the moment in the top photo-montage of this review. Mon Dieu, those eyes. In a general sense, the acting varies from somnambulistic to over the top emoting. While we're obviously watching a crime-film of sorts with Sexus, it appears the crime elements are merely a vessel for something more primal. Sexuality of various sorts and orientations churns through the film, though if you're looking for explicit, even softcore sex for your evening's viewing this won't be the film for you. Sexus is a work of art primarily, and Bénazéraf is more interested in exploring the effects of a heightened eroticism on people under stress. Blackie's final realisation, that love is all that matters, mirrors an interview with Bénazéraf I've read, where he regretted his lifelong interest in politics when he eventually concluded that (to him) sex was all that matters.
As we all often learn in life, it's the little, simple things that can have a big impact. Bénazéraf doesn't go for complexity here, and his plot is pretty simple for the most part. Yet Sexus does leave it's mark on the mind, and sometimes a director can communicate things without even realising it. With it's odd framing device, throbbing score and luminous imagery, Bénazéraf lets us in on his obsessions, and if you are in the right frame of mind, you can dive right in with him into the whirlpool. I look forward to covering more of his films in these pages. Though not quite in the realm of some of the more obvious Sinema covered here, the blood pumping under the filmic flesh would appear to be the same. It's a hip, jazzy feast for the senses, if you can track it down.
© Boris Lugosi, 2008.
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Review written: 11/16/2008 17:50:33