Thursday, August 15, 2013

Joe Marzano's "Venus in Furs"

Directed by: Joseph Marzano 

Starring: Barbara Ellen,
Shep Wild,
Yolanda Signorelli,
Janet Banzet 

Released: 1967 

Language: English 

Length: 65 minutes

As I mentioned in a previous review, when it comes to movies with FemDom themes, “Venus is Furs” is a popular film title. I have no less than four movies by this name in my FemDom film collection. Yet surprisingly, the four movies have almost nothing in common.  

In 1967 sexploitation producer Lou Campa hired Joe Marzano to work on a bizarre little movie called “Cool it, Baby.” After making 16mm shorts throughout the 50’s, Marzano found work in the 1960’s as an editor for an outfit producing industrial films. One of these pictures, “To Face Life Again”, was an unusual documentary about disfigured accident victims readjusting to life. There he met Lew Waldeck, the editor of a series of low-budget soft-core films. Soon enough, Waldeck introduced Joe Marzano to the world of sexploitation.   

Declining cultural barriers were allowing more and more on-screen nudity. From the relatively high-profile Russ Meyer (“Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill!”) to the lesser-known film-makers such as Joe Sarno, each produced films based on their private fetishes and desires, normally backed by financiers who were willing to bankroll titles that often had little or nothing to do with the finished picture. Without script or concept, a producer would assemble a crew of inexpensive, hungry talent and tell them, “I want a sex film called ‘Cool It, Baby’ or ‘Venus in Furs’” and it was their job to make it happen.   

This was truly the golden age of American sexploitation, when a director could make a feature film for $10,000 and be allowed to follow his own private obsessions wherever they happened to take him, and perhaps end up with an odd little gem. Granted most of what was made was substandard and generally dismissed as trash but some of the sexploitation directors worked from true creative expression. Joe Marzano was such a man.   

Through Lew Waldeck, Marzano met Lou Campa, a director of numerous exploitation films. Waldeck was given $12,000 to make a picture, and was told whatever he didn’t spend would be his salary. Given that enticing stipulation, he made “Cool It, Baby” in 1967 for $7,000. Waldeck hired Marzano and Campa to help make the picture. It was filmed with a lone stationary camera on a tripod. The film ultimately had no real director, and screenwriter Lou Palisano delivered an unfinished script which was fleshed out by Marzano. Joe stayed on as an actor and directed some sequences, Waldeck directed others, and Campa directed the rest. None of them cared about who got credit seeing they were going to split $5,000 between them for a couple days work.   

When I ordered my copy of Marzano’s “Venus in Furs”, it was released on the ‘Something Weird’ label. The DVD contains 3 movies, including “Cool it, Baby”.
I fast forwarded through the film, "Cool it, Baby”, stopping here and there to get a feel for the movie, and I was surprised at how amateur it was. “Cool it, Baby” has some S&M themes but nothing that is in the least erotic or sexy. It has a cruel female lead but the film has more to do with forced female slavery, drug use, bizarre rituals, laughable whipping scenes, and a court trial filmed in someone’s office complete with office desk and filing cabinets. It is a terrible film but surprisingly it turned a profit. I guess there were enough men hungry for S&M themed movies in 1967 that even the lamest of films could turn a profit with the right kind of promotion.   

Not only did he help write and direct “Cool It, Baby”, Marzano brought most of the cast onboard himself. All of which impressed Campa, who had already secured $10,000 for his next project, a sexploitation film based on the Sacher-Masoch novel “Venus in Furs”. So Campa hired Marzano to direct it.   

Marzano’s “Venus in Furs” was a big artistic advance over “Cool It, Baby”. Able to control the lighting, Joe was free to experiment with the photography, and had two cameras at his disposal. With Lew Waldeck off shooting another picture, George Cirello stepped in as cinematographer, but Marzano did a lot of the photography himself. He brought back several of his friends from “Cool It, Baby” and completed the post-production work, editing and sound mix on his own.    

He had a five day shooting schedule so Joe got together with his friend Barbara Ellen (who played a blackmail victim in “Cool It, Baby”) to write the screenplay. It was Ellen who had the brilliant idea of incorporating the opening scene of the Sacher-Masoch novel into a fantasy sequence in the film. Marzano’s “Venus in Furs” combines sexploitation, creative and artistic film making, and quite a bit of surrealism. Some have made the observation that the film bears similarities to the movies that Marzano’s friend Paul Morrissey was making for Andy Warhol at the time. Perhaps that was his inspiration.   

Marzano’s “Venus in Furs” opens with a close-up of a woman’s leg as she slowly and seductively removes her stockings. She drops them on a naked man who is lying on the floor. Then we see another stocking landing on him, then another, and another as we hear a female voice who paraphrases the words of Venus in the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel “Venus in Furs”; 

“You are the one who desires, we are the ones who are desired. This is woman’s entire advantage.”  

Then we hear the voice of another woman, “Do you have this in higher heels?” 

More stockings land on the naked man as he seems to be drifting off into subspace. We hear again from the first woman as she continues to paraphrase Venus,  

“There’s something in you that makes me want to punish you, subdue you, DOMINATE YOU!”  

Then we hear the other woman and then a third woman, we hear all three women’s voices as they alternate sentences. “You shall be bound, bound with stockings, helpless, gagged, put underfoot, lashed, unloved, until you can love, then you can kiss my breast, my mouth, but first my toes. Kiss my toes! You shall be our slave, without illusion, but first you shall feel the pressure of my foot, without mercy.”  

We see three sets of female legs touching the man, teasing him, one pressing her foot against his face, as we hear a repeat of the women taunting him with their words.

“You are the one who desires, we are the ones who are desired. This is woman’s entire advantage. Do you have this in higher heels? There’s something in you that makes me want to punish you, subdue you, DOMINATE YOU! You shall be bound, bound with stockings, helpless, gagged, put underfoot, lashed, unloved, until you can love, then you can kiss my breast, my mouth, but first my toes. Kiss my toes! You shall be our slave, without illusion, but first you shall feel the pressure of my foot, without mercy, WITHOUT MERCY!” 

And with that the film’s title “Venus in Furs” fills the screen, along with “A film by Joe Marzano, suggested by a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.” It was wise that they used the term “suggested” instead of “based on” because after the upcoming scene and its accompanying dialogue, the only connection between the book and the film is the title.  

Following the opening credits, we see a woman adorned in a fur coat sitting on a couch next to a fireplace, with a man (the same man we saw in the opening) on his knees before her, kissing and worshipping her feet and her legs.

Following Barbara Ellen’s idea, their dialogue is right out of chapter one of the Sacher-Masoch novel (paraphrased a little to give it a more modern meaning).  

It is the dialogue between the book’s author and the Goddess Venus (played by Ellen). Marzano’s first choice to play Venus was the young Warhol actress Mary Woronov, who appeared in “Chelsea Girls” a year earlier. Although she’d expressed interest in doing it, Marzano decided against hiring Mary because the Warhol crew had a reputation for being unreliable. Therefore he cast Barbara Ellen for both the roles of Venus and the female lead character, Marna.  

Getting back to the Venus scene, the fur clad Goddess and her submissive admirer discuss love and the female nature. An example of the rather lengthy dialogue goes like this,  

"You are a divinity, but nonetheless a woman and, like every woman, cruel in matters of love." 

"What you call cruelty, is simply the element of passion and sensuality which is part of woman's nature, and which makes her give herself whenever she loves, and love everything that pleases her." 

If you have a foot fetish or if you’re a fan of watching a man grovel and worship a woman’s feet and legs, you will no doubt enjoy both this scene and the overall movie, as there are numerous foot worship, leg worship and trampling scenes in the film.

In my opinion a better title for the movie might have been “Fetishes” as the film portrays a variety of unusual sexual kinks. (Campa wanted to name the film “Cherished Women”). 

I must say that I really liked both of the opening scenes in this movie. Very well done for a 1960’s sexploitation film. They are of course the fantasies of a submissive male, David, and we meet him as he wakes up from his dreams, with the book “Venus in Furs” lying on his chest. David has the perfect job for a submissive man with a foot fetish, he is a shoe salesman. 

David takes the subway to work, all the while he fantasizes about worshipping and kissing the shoes of the women he sees on the train. He arrives at the shoe store and he obviously loves his job as he gets to serve women by kneeing before them and helping them try on various shoes.

We now know part of the meaning of his fantasy in the opening scene with the one woman’s voice taunting him “Do you have this in higher heels?”. 
After he gets off work, David goes to the New York Public Library. Before he enters, five young women run past him. (Marzano had a Fellini-esque vision of dozens of girls running toward the camera. Campa agreed and lined up the talent, but on the day of the shoot he arrived with just three women. After making a few phone calls, Marzano rounded up two more for a total of five.) 
Once inside the library, David is browsing books when he happens across a beautiful and mysterious woman, Marna (wearing a fur stole).  
He gives her a drive home to a secluded house in the country. She flirts with him but doesn’t permit him to kiss her. She invites him inside her sprawling Gothic mansion but tells him he will have to wait to kiss her. She offers for him to spend the night in a spare room. By this time the movie has taken on a distinctly dream-like quality. David wanders the hallways, hearing people behind all the closed doors. He goes door to door, peeking inside where he observes people engaging in a smorgasbord of fetishes and unusual sexual practices.  
In one room there is a muscular man, clothed only in his underwear, he is blindfolded and needs the use of a cane to stand. He has a tin cup in his other hand and several women, one by one, come into the room, drop a coin into the cup and then fondle his body. Perhaps this was a 1967 version of a CFNM fetish. 
In another room, David witnesses a woman tied to the bed and two other women are spanking her with their shoes. In another room there is a man removing the boots off of a woman’s feet. He then licks and kisses her feet before lying on the floor where she tramples him. In yet another room we see a masked woman giving a naked woman a milk bath. She pours milk all over her body, scrubs her body and after the bath, she pours milk into a saucer and forces the naked woman to drink it like a cat.

While this is going, David finds a book of photographs which obviously disturb him, although we don’t know what the book contains. 
The next day David meets up with Marna and he witnesses first hand her dominant nature. She is playing ping pong with a gentleman wearing glasses and whenever she scores a point, she makes the man kneel before her and she hits him on the head with her paddle. She also forces the ping pong ball into his mouth. Later in the match, she strikes him across the face with her paddle.
Next, Marna plays a game of chess with David. During the game a blonde woman sits down at the table to watch the chess match. Marna takes David’s Queen and drops it on the floor. She orders David to “pick it up”. He hesitates so she forcefully reiterates, “I said PICK IT UP!”

David bends down to fetch the piece when Marna kicks it under the table. David crawls under the table and Marna tramples him with her shoes, stepping on his hands with her heels. As she is doing this Marna begins to kiss the blonde woman as they are both obviously turned on by Marna’s dominance and David’s humiliation. 

Other bizarre things occur at the house such as the reading of children’s stories, and finally the climactic orgy scene. The orgy scene is more fetish-driven than sex driven. It’s more like a fever dream. There are people dancing while a woman rides an exercise bike in the middle of the room.

There’s a man in drag dancing with a woman. We see ‘objectification’ taking place as a woman is lying on the floor being used as a card table while another woman obsessively deals cards onto her body. 

There are couples making out and writhing on the floor, all fully clothed. This was common enough in 1960s sexploitation movies and usually looks silly, but in this case it adds to the overall fantasy quality and surrealism of the film. It’s as if the people are driven by something more powerful than sex.  

For his part in the orgy, David is totally focused on watching Marna. He makes his move and he begins to undress her (although she never becomes completely naked). He begins to kiss her but she pushes him away and orders him to kiss her toes. David removes her shoes and he worships her feet (yet another foot worship scene).

He works his way up her body, hoping to finally kiss her on the mouth but just before he does, the blonde woman from the chess match appears and kisses Marna instead. Marna kisses the woman back as she pushes David away with her hand. Once again David is humiliated and frustrated. 

The next day, David is about to leave when Marna once again flirts with him. She tells him that she’s sorry they were interrupted at the orgy because she is attracted to him and she was hoping he would make love to her. David again falls for her seduction so they leave together and go horseback riding in the country. David loses sight of Marna and comes across her making out with the blonde woman up against a tree. David is furious and accuses her of deceiving him. Marna grabs a riding crop and attacks David.

David fights back and wrestles Marna on the ground. The blonde woman tries to help Marna fight David off (although it looks like all she really wants to do is crawl around in the mud). David gains the upper hand and subdues Marna. He begins to kiss her and acts as if he is going to have sex her, right there in the woods, with the other woman watching.  

But then we see David tied to the tree, tied with women’s stockings. The women are lying on the ground looking at him, and the people from the house are standing at a distance taking in David’s humiliation. 

As he is tied to the tree with a look of subspace on his face, we hear the women from the beginning of the film and realize the first woman’s voice is that of Marna. She recites the same words from the beginning of the film, 

“You are the one who desires, we are the ones who are desired. This is woman’s entire advantage. There’s something in you that makes me want to punish you, subdue you, DOMINATE YOU! You shall be bound, bound with stockings, helpless, gagged, put underfoot, lashed, unloved, until you can love, then you can kiss my breast, my mouth, but first my toes. You shall be our slave, without illusion, but first you shall feel the pressure of my foot, without mercy, WITHOUT MERCY!” 

Suddenly we see David sitting outside the New York public library. It is apparent the entire episode was just another one of his fantasies. He gets up and wanders around the streets when he sees a car pull up. He looks inside the car and there is a woman wearing a fur stole and a fur hat. She raises her head and looks at David. The woman is Marna. Perhaps his ordeal wasn’t a fantasy after all.

I definitely enjoyed both Jess Franco’s and Massimo Dallamano’s “Venus in Furs” better than this one. However, to be fair, it really is apples and oranges. When you review a low-budget Lou Campa sexploitation film you go into it with very low expectations. This version of “Venus in Furs” was undoubtedly not at all the sort of movie Campa had in mind when he commissioned Marzano to direct it. It is in fact a somewhat artsy film, admittedly an artsy film about fetishes, kink and sex, but it’s an artsy film nonetheless. This film is a strange but oddly engrossing mix of Sacher-Masoch, Fetishism, FemDom and surrealism. As you probably know by now, I like surrealism in movies.   

There’s a peculiar quality to the eroticism in this film, a kind of thwarted sterile quality. The plot is sketchy, but that seems more of a strength than a weakness, contributing to the feeling of events moving endlessly like recycled dream images. And I thought that Barbara Ellen, who co-wrote the script, played Marna in a delightfully dominant way. There’s very little nudity and no graphic sex, but the movie still manages to be very kinky and definitely expands the boundaries of societal sexual norms. That’s true whether you watched in 1967 or 2012. The film is in constant danger of taking itself too seriously, but Marzano comes up with enough striking and disquieting images to justify its pretensions to being a genuine art film. 

It’s not a great movie by any stretch but it’s well done given its pittance of a budget. Despite its shortcomings, this “Venus in Furs” is a fascinating example of an artist at odds with the sexploitation genre. Marzano wanted to make a real movie and he was obviously connected to the source material, Sacher-Masoch’s kinks and fetishes. Some have said that Joe Marzano was a conceptual and physical fusion of Orson Welles and Hugo Haas. Given the opportunity and freedom, Joe Marzano might have easily been a respected, major American filmmaker. 

Campa made a few more sexploitation films before his descent into mob-financed hardcore. Joe Marzano, on the other hand, never directed in 35mm again. He photographed Lloyd Michael Williams’s experimental “Line of Apogee” (1968), and worked as an assistant director on Jack Glenn’s unreleased “House of the Seven Gables”. He even went back to Campa and sold him a script called “The Leather Girls”, about an all-girl biker gang that may have been sparked by Russ Meyer’s “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Campa never shot it, but Joe made an abbreviated version in the late 70’s in super-8mm.  

He continued in super-8 into the 80’s but even super-8 became unaffordable, and Joe Marzano went on to make a proliferation of short films on videotape up until his untimely death in the summer of 2000. Many of his fans considered “Venus in Furs” to be his finest work.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of this film until I read about it in your blog. I watched it and found some of the photography very interesting. Especially the foot fetish stuff, the stockings falling on him, or the point of view trampling shots. Fantasy artsy fetish in black and white. Some of the voice overs were great too. The milk bath was erotic somehow as was the Marna characters cuckolding cruelty. I think it was surreally inspired by Masochs novel, which itself was one of Vienna's traumnovelles (dream novel), just like the book Eyes Wide Shut is based on.