When José Bénazéraf passed away in December of 2012, author Pete Tombs wrote “What can you say about his films? They were reflections of the man who made them.”(1) Tombs described Bénazéraf as a “force of nature, that’s a description that truly fits him”(2) and a “controversalist” with “strong opinions on just about everything”(3) but at the same time as “filled with contradictions”(4). Indeed, one of the biggest contradictions, while not directly about the man himself but rather how film history has treated a pioneering filmmaker like Bénazéraf, regulating his films to the footnotes. Interviewed in Tombs and Cathal Tohill’s watershed book Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 nearly twenty years earlier, Bénazéraf stated “I don’t want to sound like a marginal-because I’m not. I make money. I do OK. I can’t complain about marginality. I’m not lost in the corner. OK-I make marginal movies-sex movies…”(5) Known throughout his career as both “The Antonioni of Pigalle” and “The Godard of Porn”, Bénazéraf was one of the very first European erotic genre specialists, emerging at a time when filmmakers could make money and still break creative ground while doing it. Like Borowczyk, Bénazéraf began his directorial career as a name to know among all the official film channels only to be dismissed as a mere pornographer later on. Victimized in a sense by the changes in the industry he helped to pioneer. Bénazéraf remained unique upon the arrival of hardcore adult films in Europe. Unlike some of his contemporaries like Franco or Rollin, who worked hardcore under pseudonyms and for purely financial purposes, Bénazéraf openly embraced the format.
Following years of bitter resentment towards the French censors and film industry as a whole, Bénazéraf initially saw hardcore as the ultimate medium for artistic rebellion. That period was short-lived, however, as Bénazéraf once again found himself at odds with the economic demands of his own profession. As Bénazéraf attested to, the numerous adult videos he shot throughout the 80’s certainly provided him a comfortable life, however his shot-on-video “sex movies” by that time had become more “marginal” than any of his prior work, his earlier films absolutely becoming lost in a corner as a result. A curious turn of events for a filmmaker who started in the industry with French New Wave connections. Perplexing as it might seem for some, the same man responsible for later direct-to-video hardcore titles like Lusty Widow (1985) and Olinka, Grand Priestess of Love (1985) was indeed mentioned once upon a time in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma with the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, and Chabrol. Bénazéraf and his car even make an appearance in Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960). Godard himself would even spotlight Bénazéraf with a piece in Cahiers du cinéma. Certainly, the timelines line up, with Bénazéraf’s career beginning during the early years of the Nouvelle Vague. Bénazéraf’s early films also disregarded traditional narrative and technical form, techniques several filmmakers that subscribed to Nouvelle Vague ideas would utilize. As much as Bénazéraf could be seen as part of the Nouvelle Vague and despite his own assertion of not being “lost in a corner”, Bénazéraf’s outsider mentality found him operating from his own highly identifiable and private corner from the outset. Bénazéraf even admitted when Cahiers du cinéma compared him with Vincente Minnelli: “It was completely crazy. Hysterical. Too much. I thought it was a joke. I still don’t know if they were serious or not.”(6)
Bénazéraf began in the film business as a successful producer with erotic fare such as Le quatrième sexe (The Fourth Sex, 1961), though he harbored a strong distaste for his own country’s cinematic output. Operating with a DIY ethos and a love of classic American noir and German expressionism, Bénazéraf set out to prove he could make a better film than any of the directors whose films he was producing. It was Bénazéraf’s independent confidence (and belligerence) that led to his first directorial feature L’éternité pour nous (Eternity for Us, 1961) becoming a reality. Funded with 200,000 of Bénazéraf’s own francs, the film was as independent as could be for the time. As Bénazéraf recalled, “I had no CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image) authorization to make that film. No directors card, nothing at all.”(7). The film partially came about due to happenstance as well, Bénazéraf saying:
“I was lying on the beach reading a book and I saw this girl coming out of the sea. She was quite beautiful. And as she passed me by I said “Are you an actress?” And she said in a little girls voice, “No, but I would like to be.” “OK-you’re going to start next week.” And so we started next week. I did everything. Even operated the camera… And I didn’t even leave Cannes. I went to Agd, where some friends I knew had a house, and we shot the movie there on the beach.”(8).
The girl Bénazéraf spied coming out of the sea in Cannes was Sylvia Sorrente, whom Bénazéraf would later claim in “A Life in Four Chapters”, the episode of the Channel 4 series Eurotika! (1999) dedicated to his films, was the worst actress he ever worked with (9). Nevertheless, it was Sorrente’s presence which led Bénazéraf to cast her in the lead for L’éternité pour nous as dancer/singer Brigitte. Arriving on an island resort with her lover, pianist Jean-Marc (Michel Lemoine, who would become one of Bénazéraf’s closest collaborators) to be the resorts’ entertainment for the summer, tensions arise almost instantly as a result of the barely hidden mutual attraction between Jean-Marc and Maria (Monique Just), the owner of the resort. The mood on the island was tense prior to Jean-Marc and Brigitte’s arrival on account of Maria’s ailing husband who perishes not long after, starting the rumors and accusations of murder. Still, Jean-Marc and Brigitte accept Maria’s invitation to stay on the island during the off-season so Jean-Marc can concentrate on composing, further entangling all three in a menage of moody dramatics. “Moody” of course being the keyword defining L’éternité pour nous and the descriptor that would best define Bénazéraf’s subsequent films.
Unlike other debuts like Robbe-Grillet’s L’immortelle (1963) or Larraz’s Whirlpool (1970) where the respective director’s trademarks were more-or-less established with that first film, L’éternité pour nous is a classic case of a filmmaker finding themselves. Compared with the films that would soon follow, L’éternité pour nous plays somewhat more like a conventional film, being one of the more dialogue-driven and story-heavy Bénazéraf films. More classical than jazz, so to speak, which also reflects in much of the film’s soundtrack. However, several of what would become Bénazéraf’s signature touches are apparent from the outset. Mood again being one of Bénazéraf’s specialties, the prevailing one of L’éternité pour nous being melancholy and a sense of isolation which would become even more pronounced in future Bénazéraf films. Even the title “Eternity for Us” carries some rather pessimistic connotations, much of Lemonie’s dialogue consisting of non-stop existential and fatalistic philosophical musings. Aspects of the look and feel of L’éternité pour nous also reinforce Bénazéraf curious contradictory tendencies. Moody and melancholic as the film can be, particularly during the final third where the resort and remote surroundings truly begin to feel lived in, the film takes on the air of the empty off-season resort, Bénazéraf’s approach also gives the film somewhat of a cool detachment. Of course, Bénazéraf was anything but detached, hand’s on as the film’s production was. Bénazéraf’s self-operated style, astoundingly accomplished given the film was his first as a director, gives L’éternité pour nous a very distinct, highly shadowed look, obviously informed by Bénazéraf’s aforementioned love of noir and expressionism. The seaside setting, exteriors, and the mysterious, allure and often black-dominated wardrobe of Monique Just also give the film a curious, almost early Bava-esque gothic feel, Bénazéraf refining this hybrid style for the follow-up to L’éternité pour nous.
A landmark film in the development of European erotic cinema, L’éternité pour nous was also the first instance of Bénazéraf’s independence running him afoul of a form of French authority. Due to Bénazéraf never gaining CNC approval to make the film, L’éternité pour nous almost never made it to French screens. “When I finished it they said you can’t put it on”(10) Bénazéraf claimed. In retaliation, Bénazéraf sold the film abroad himself. “So I said fuck them and I started showing it in Belgium, in Germany. I even sold it to Japan. For a fortune. The success was so big that they couldn’t ignore it and so eventually they gave me a director’s card and Visa to show the movie in France.”(11). The film even made it to the US, albeit retitled as “Sin on the Beach” and cut by a considerable twenty minutes. An omen of sorts as the same fate would greet Bénazéraf next film Le concerto de la peur (The Concert of Fear, 1962) which moved further into thriller territory. Despite the death of the husband and the question of murder lurking in the background of L’éternité pour nous, they remained just that, lurking in the background. It’s with Le concerto de la peur where the crime element that became another one of Bénazéraf’s fortes is pushed to the front, with opposing heroin traffickers Eric, a blind, philosophizing, trumpet playing drug kingpin and his rival Sacha’s battle over turf. All-out gang warfare erupts following Sacha’s kidnapping of Eric’s brother Fred, Eric retaliating by kidnapping Nora, a drug lab worker, and holding her hostage at his manor.
The first collaboration between Bénazéraf and Chet Baker, Le concerto de la peur is where Bénazéraf transitions from the more classically inclined filmmaking of L’éternité pour nous and becomes a jazz filmmaker, in essence creating his own idiosyncratic and signature brand of gangster film the way Rollin would vampire films. Similar to how Franco would design Venus in Furs (1969) years later, Le concerto de la peur is a jazz film in the sense that the story seems to serve merely as a jumping point for the soloist to improvise on a theme. Bénazéraf is still retaining some normal storytelling techniques, with a pre-credits sequence involving Nora and various nuances of the rivaling factions revealed throughout the course of the film. Ultimately though the narrative is a skeleton for Bénazéraf to put an even bigger emphasis on mood than in L’éternité pour nous with added moments of uncomfortable stillness and silence. Bénazéraf’s cool hand is still at play, heroin being an appropriate choice of substance for the film to center on with even the more explosive moments of the film seemingly under an opiate influence. In many ways, it’s Baker’s score that dictates Bénazéraf’s style and the various mood swings that the film goes through. From somber, mournful, and quiet to erratic eruptions of violence, Le concerto de la peur is where the element of danger begins to creep in, where Bénazéraf’s style really becomes up close and personal. More bizarre and random as well, with Nora succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome, an idea Bénazéraf would return to soon enough. While the action goes through various locations, the isolation first felt in L’éternité pour nous grows stronger in Le concerto de la peur, Nora’s moments of captivity in Eric’s manor especially. The manor setting, Bénazéraf’s laying of the noir influenced visuals even thicker and actress Regine Rumen’s even more vampish look than Monique Just giving the film even more of a gothic flavor than L’éternité pour nous.
Le concerto de la peur was picked up for American distribution by notorious producer Bob Cresse, whom Bénazéraf described as “more or less a gangster”(12). Re-titled “Night of Lust”, like L’éternité pour nous, the film’s length was trimmed to a little under an hour with the addition of voice-over exposition and new spliced in strip sequences not shot by Bénazéraf. Still, the film was a success. So much so that legendary producer Dick Randall, who at the time was representing Cresse, financed and starred in Bénazéraf’s colorful look at the Parisian strip circuit 24 heures d’un Américain à Paris (24 Hours of an American in Paris, 1963) which Randall released in the US as “Paris Ooh-La-La”. Bénazéraf was beginning to gain a reputation, his next film Cover Girls (1964) earning him the greatest critical accolades of his career, including that Minnelli comparison from Cahiers du cinéma which Bénazéraf found so much humor in. Following Cover Girls, Bénazéraf returned to the realm of crime and gangsters as well as black and white with La Nuit la plus longue (The Longest Night, 1964). Eschewing any peripheral plot, Bénazéraf also discards the drug angle of Le concerto de la peur, instead of making kidnapping the focus with Pierre and Carl, two gangsters kidnapping the wealthy Virginie in broad daylight with plans to demand a ransom from her father. Joining a female accomplice at an isolated countryside safe house, the group is soon joined by the knife-loving Francois (Willy Braque, a familiar face to Rollin fans). Already on edge, dissension forms within, and the gangs’ plans begin to crumble after Carl attempts to rape Virginie following an escape attempt, who has grown a strong attraction to Pierre.
Alternately known as L’enfer dans la peau or“Hell in the Skin”, La nuit la plus longue was in many ways the film Bénazéraf was working towards since L’éternité pour nous, distilling the moody eroticism of his debut and the crime/gangster elements of Le concerto de la peur to their base elements. Pure heroin Bénazéraf. Working once again with Chet Baker, La nuit la plus longue is Bénazéraf’s free jazz filmmaking style perfected. Doing away with even the opening credits, Bénazéraf’s style becomes even more random than Le concerto de la peur, almost stream of consciousness. Certainly more unpredictable and tense than before, with the stretches of silence and stillness lasing even longer, once again quite narcotic, only to be interrupted by random fits of violence and even dancing. While not quite as expressionistic visually as L’éternité pour nous or Le concerto de la peur, Bénazéraf’s style nevertheless results, either inadvertently or by design, in some almost surreal imagery with the actors often mannequin-like in appearance and demeanor. Baker’s score is again similarly unpredictable. Alternating again between jittery free jazz explosions and more contemplative solo trumpet pieces, ideal backdrop for Pierre and Virginie’s philosophical soliloquies after consummating their bizarre Stockholm Syndrome relationship. Baker also places a heavy focus on Latin-seasoned percussion and piano, the most memorable piece reserved for the bondage strip scene late in the film when Bénazéraf finally leaves the safe house. Bénazéraf himself makes a cameo here as a higher-up in the crime syndicate responsible for Virginie’s kidnapping as he did in Le concerto de la peur. An iconic moment in Bénazéraf’s body of work, the scene provided the appropriate advertising imagery for the films’ American release, though rather than a gangster, US distribution was handled by an erotic filmmaking contemporary of Bénazéraf.
Renamed “Sexus”, La nuit la plus longue was released Stateside by Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films who had previously handled distribution for the Bénazéraf produced The Fourth Sex. A pioneering erotic filmmaker in his own right who like Bénazéraf made the move into hardcore, Metzger was an admirer of the Bénazéraf aesthetic, telling Film Comment in 1973 “He really has a feel for making an erotic movie. There’s a degenerate streak in his films, in which he lives. You literally can smell the film. It’s a gift. And he has impeccable taste in choosing his girls.”(13) Like Bénazéraf’s previous films to have been imported to the States, the “Sexus” release had a much shorter run time than the original French release. Metzer noted, “Sexus was a very strong picture at the time. We were a little worried about it because it had a couple of lesbian striptease acts”(14), though the cuts were for a time, despite the original already being fairly brisk. Metzger explained “It was a style that might go today, but it seemed very slow then. We were trying to give our audience a little more commercial entertainment, so I compressed the thing, took out a lot of the pauses.”(15) Metzger also remarked on the title change “They sold a lot of Henry Miller books on the basis of the movie, but I suspect that a lot of people went to the movie thinking it was the film version of that book.”(16). Time trims and title changes for international releases would prove to be the least of Bénazéraf’s worries, as back in France Bénazéraf’s next foray into the world of organized crime found Bénazéraf at war with a different kind of mafia, the bourgeois French censors.
Described by Bénazéraf as a story of “intellectual incest”(16), Joë Caligula (1966) marked a crucial turning point in Bénazéraf’s career, and in an odd way, Bénazéraf was foreseeing the fate of the film, the central idea of waging war against the established order a mirror, albeit a fantastical one, of Bénazéraf’s own eternal political battle with the French film establishment. Though, unlike his films, Bénazéraf himself was more verbal than the much more physical titular “Joe Caligula, nicknamed as such due to his vanity, penchant for sadism, and incestuous feelings for his sister Brigitte. In an attempt to take over the ranks of organized crime in Paris, Joe and his young, ambitious crew of thugs wage war on the old guard of the Parisian underworld. Going as far as kidnapping established bosses demanding randoms and setting fire to high-ranking rival crew members, Joe’s crusade only increases the violence, the consequences of which can only be tragic.
As he did with Le concerto de la peur, Bénazéraf takes what sounds like a fairly atypical crime or gangster plot with Joë Caligula, and turns into something truly wild and transgressive. A fusion film of sorts, like L’éternité pour nous and Le concerto de la peur, Joë Caligula has a more involved plot, larger cast of characters, and occupies more locations than La nuit la plus longue. However, after having perfected his freewheeling style of almost formal experimentation in the later, Joë Caligula was Bénazéraf’s most radical yet, the drifts from exposition to what seem like improvisation even more extreme as were the tonal shifts, Bénazéraf once again switching without warning between moody silence and brooding faces to the gangster action that fueled the case against the film. The iconic image of star Gérard Blain brandishing his gun behind dark sunglasses is the perfect visual summation of Bénazéraf’s direction with the aloof coolness of La nuit la plus longue; the detached, mannequin-esque performances and random breaks into dance taken to new extremes in Joë Caligula, each character emitting an arrogant coolness behind their black glasses. Bénazéraf also makes the mannequin visual literal with a scene of Joe and his equally vain cohorts posing in new outfits and most memorably, Brigitte stopping in the street to pose like a mannequin in a storefront window. Brigitte and actress Jeanne Valérie also indicative of Bénazéraf’s style and also its contradictions. Like Blain’s Joe, Valérie spends most of the film lost in her own head of otherworldly coolness, yet their bizarre, enigmatic relationship make Joë Caligula Bénazéraf’s most character-driven and surprisingly emotionally resonant at the time despite the heightened un-reality like feel of the film. Bénazéraf’s imagery late in the film during Brigitte’s dazed strolls, be it the mannequin post or the final trek across a long bridge, is generally haunting, Bénazéraf’s wholly singular mixture of near-silent, pent-up eroticism and moody atmospherics conjured during the film’s moments anticipating Bénazéraf’s later opus Frustration (1971).
Despite Bénazéraf’s assertion that he only made films for fun and that cinema wasn’t as he put it “a serious enterprise”(17), Joë Caligula was different. As Bénazéraf put it “I made the film with Gérard Blain, who was quite a star of the nouvelle-vague. I made it in a kind of-in France we say “extaste”-because I believed totally in that movie. I took it very seriously. I invested a lot of money. I shot it in black and white…”(18) Unfortunately, what was supposed to be Bénazéraf’s defining statement never made it to the public as Bénazéraf initially intended. After already granting the film a rating certificate, the French censors unceremoniously pulled the rug out from under Bénazéraf, banning the film outright the day before its planned release, leaving Bénazéraf not only angry but with empty pockets. Joë Caligula was eventually granted a release certificate, though it wasn’t until two years later in 1968. Bénazéraf recalled the entire ordeal in Immoral Tales:
“It’s a very sad story… I showed it to the censors and they said over 18 only. So I said OK, over 18 only. I had a national release and on Wednesday, the day before release, we had 30 or 40 copies across France and they said “No. Completely banned.” And I was left with 30 prints of the film and all the costs to pay. And I couldn’t export the film or exploit it. It was a disaster. And it’s so sad because its perhaps the best movie I ever made. The only really good one. They said I was making an apology for violence. You know-the old routine. Gratuitous violence.”(19)
The “official” reasoning for the ban from the French censorship authorities may have been violence, Bénazéraf however, viewed it as politically motivated. While the stories themselves were never outright political in nature, Bénazéraf quickly gained a reputation for antagonizing the French authorities, peppering his films with random bits of radical political dialogue or voice-overs which served no purpose other than to further rattle Bénazéraf’s critics. Bénazéraf saw the “violence” excuse as just that, the excuse needed by the authorities to finally take him off the market, Bénazéraf proclaiming:
“It was revenge. Because of my opposition to all that administration and bureaucracy. So they fucked me and they fucked me well. I didn’t want to touch a camera after that. And besides, I lost a lot of money. Then, two years later, along came Bonnie and Clyde-which was a much bigger film, with prestigious actors and so on. I cut Joe Caligula and put a couple of sex scenes in it and got a lamentable release in Midi-Minuit and Scarlett and nobody cared. Two years on it had completely lost its impact. Because everything had got more violent. It’s like sex in movies. It’s all a fashion. Things change quickly.”(20).
Quick to bring the fight himself to the authorities in his younger days, Bénazéraf later looked back upon his political battles with regret, lamenting in 1995:
“And now I’m sad about all the time I lost in politics, losing a part of my life and spending money on political movies… Especially when you see the disaster of what you were thinking was good in politics. When you see the unsuccessful examples of socialism all over the world. And people like Bush, Reagan, and Clinton at the head of the most powerful country in the world. It’s got to make you skeptical about politics.”(21)
Understandably a bit shell shocked following the debacle with Joë Caligula, Bénazéraf returned to the do-it-yourself ethos from the early days of L’éternité pour nous for the release of the film Bénazéraf referred to as his “one political film”(22), Le désirable et le sublime (The Desirable and the Sublime, 1969). Made in retaliation after the distribution, or rather lack thereof, the nightmare of Joë Caligula, Bénazéraf once again became his own source of distribution, however, the industry had changed drastically in the eight years between L’éternité pour nous and Le désirable et le sublime, Bénazéraf’s experience self-releasing Le désirable et le sublime a much different one than the worldwide success he achieved with the initially self-release of L’éternité pour nous. Bénazéraf once again evoking the “marginal” tag in his recollection:
“To show it I had to rent three theaters and put in all the projection gear myself. I worked day and night without any authority from the police to run a theatre… I tell you, if you go outside the rules of the big distributors you are lost. Lost. The whole system of exporting and exploiting has to all be just so. Otherwise you become marginalized. But I had to adopt that attitude…”(23)
Given his various battles and frustrations with the mainstream film industry in France, Bénazéraf’s move into full-on hardcore films in the mid-’70s was hardly a shock. Again though, Bénazéraf would soon find his recent history somewhat repeating itself, with even the adult industry subjected to regulations by the state and later the demand for the mere product after the video boom of ’80s, Bénazéraf once again found himself a man on an island which sadly is where he seems to remain for the most part. A cult figure in France, Bénazéraf’s films continue to linger on the fringe everywhere else, largely in part due to Bénazéraf’s work having yet to really benefit from the home video revolution the same way films from some of the names Bénazéraf has long been mentioned in the same breath as, like the previously mentioned Franco, Rollin, Borowczyk, Larraz or Robbe-Grillet. Brilliant as it is having readily available, revelatory restorations of the films of said directors, there’s also somewhat of an irony in seeing those names and their films suddenly spotlighted in certain outlets and by certain subsets of the industry that not so long ago would have happily kept them in the ghetto alongside Bénazéraf. Whether Bénazéraf’s films will be preserved in the same way as the work of some of his peers remains to seen and in truth, it’s questionable whether or not Bénazéraf would even want it given his contrarian tendencies. Nonetheless, Bénazéraf’s films, particularly this early crop, remain as Bénazéraf intended, a confrontational yet utterly cool “go fuck yourself” aimed straight at the “intellectually, cinematically and sexually inferior”(24) elitist film intelligentsia.
1-4. Tombs, Pete. “RIP: José Bénazéraf and Celso Ad Castillo”. https://mondomacabrodvd.blogspot.com/2012/12/rip-jose-benazeraf-and-celso-ad-castillo.html?zx=333441da988f091e. December 11, 2012.
5-12, 16-24. Tohill, Cathal and Tombs, Pete. Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1984. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995
13-15. “Radley Metzger: Aristocrat of the Erotic”. Film Comment. January-February 1973.