Much like 1968, 1971 proved to be a fairly watershed year in film. 1971 proved an especially productive year for European genre film, the European film marketplace of the late 60’s and early-to-mid 70’s being a particularity fertile landscape. Not simply commercially but artistically as well, Europe being the home of a handful of filmmakers who carved out a niche for themselves in the market, brilliantly christened the “commercial underground”(1) by authors Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohil. Filmmakers who specialized in very specific type of genre that was really an amalgamation of a variety of fantastic influences while still retaining a highly personalized touch, subsequently dubbed throughout the years as both “Eurocult” and “Eurotrash”. The later adopted as a term of endearment by admirers. Several of the Euro genre specialists, the leading names highlighted by Tombs and Tohil in their landmark tome Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1864, found themselves firing on all cylinders in 1971 with standard setting films for both individual directorial bodies of work and this specific period of European genre film production as a whole. For instance, two of most iconic Solead Miranda-led titles from Jess Franco, Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy (Sie tötete in Ekstase) saw wide release in ’71 while Jean Rollin took his colorful visual and narrative style to new psychedelic heights in ’71 with The Shiver of the Vampires (Le frission des vampires). The same year also saw José Ramón Larraz continuing to progress in his early English period with Deviation, and although he had yet to be critically considered an “erotic” genre director, Walerian Borowczyk’s Blanche from ’71 is a benchmark Borowczyk title.
Still an obscured figure outside of France, especially when compared to the likes of Franco, Rollin or Borowczyk, José Bénazéraf found himself in an interesting spot come 1971. In the French context, it could be said that Bénazéraf walked so the entire erotic sector of the French film industry could run, Bénazéraf’s directorial debut following a successful producing stint L’éternité pour nous (Eternity for Us, 1961) a crucial film for the development of European erotica. Bénazéraf more-or-less dominated the French erotic film market for the first half of the 60’s with films such as Le concerto de la peur (Night of Lust, 1962) and La nuit la plus longue (The Longest Night, 1964), Bénazéraf solidifying a highly idiosyncratic style marked by long stretches of uncomfortable silence, random bursts of violence, free jazz supplied by Chet Baker and molten, moody eroticism. Bénazéraf was initially successful on both financial and critical fronts, Cahiers du cinéma even comparing him with Vincente Minnelli much to his own bemusement (2). However, at the same time Bénazéraf was making an enemy of himself of the French censors who grew aggravated with the random, radical political soapboxing Bénazéraf incorporated into the films. Bénazéraf was dealt a heavy personal and monetary blow from the French censorship authority with the politically motivated banning of Joë Caligula (1966). Bénazéraf later recalled not wanting to even touch a camera after the ordeal (3). Nevertheless, Bénazéraf regrouped and would later get his filmic revenge at the end of the decade with the openly political Le désirable et le sublime (The Desirable and the Sublime, 1969), going outside the mainstream distribution channels, self-releasing the film, renting out the theaters and installing projection gear himself (4).
Openly political, Le désirable et le sublime was also openly surreal. Bénazéraf’s take on the gangster film in previous works such as La nuit la plus longue and Joë Caligula was not unlike how Rollin would later approach vampires; storytelling best described as stream-of-consciousness, the already aloofly cool actors often adopting a mannequin-like stillness and the aforementioned jolts of jazz giving many of Bénazéraf’s previous films a strong air of unreality. With Le désirable et le sublime Bénazéraf openly embraced the fantastique with colorful, hallucinatory segues into S&M based fantasy, the films ocean side chateau setting and much of its aesthetic recalling classic gothic horror. More than reminiscent at times of Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo, 1963). For all its political fury, Le désirable et le sublime was at heart, albeit it being Bénazéraf’s most extreme stylistic variation on the theme, another limited character erotic chamber piece. The type Bénazéraf pioneered going all the way back to L’éternité pour nous. Not unlike how Joë Caligula seemed a fusion of a slightly more involved storyline ala L’éternité pour nous with the extreme free jazz filmmaking improvisation of La nuit la plus longue, Bénazéraf was feeling similarly inspired come 1971, fusing the combustible dramatics and isolation of his earlier black and white films with the colorful sadosurrealism of Le désirable et le sublime for what is arguably his masterpiece, Frustration.
A return to the remote French countryside, Frustration was also a reunion for Bénazéraf, collaborating once again with Michel Lemoine. Lemoine was with Bénazéraf from the beginning, staring in L’éternité pour nous and featuring in Le concerto de la peur. A familiar face to Franco fans having appeared in Succubus (Necronomicon, 1968), Kiss Me Monster (1969) and Two Undercover Angels (1969), Lemoine would become a director in his own right, scoring erotic Euro horror paydirt with Seven Women for Satan (Les week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff, 1974). Lemoine’s role in Frustration was more than just an acting one as Lemoine received a co-writing credit. Lemoine even stated in the 1999 Channel 4 documentary series Eurotika! that collaborating with Bénazéraf on the script for Frustration was a career highlight, as was cheerfully listening to Bénazéraf’s on-set rants and “impossible demands”. Fascinatingly, Bénazéraf states in the very same documentary his disliking of scripts, preferring to improvise on a scenario, the dialogue drafted in the morning before shooting. Nonetheless, co-starring alongside Lemoine for Frustration was his wife at the time, Janine Reynaud, the star of Franco’s Succubus, Kiss Me Monster and Two Undercover Angels. Like in Succubus, Reynayd is the centerpiece of Frustration as Adélaïde, a sexually frustrated women living with her sister Agnès (Élizabeth Teissier) and Agnès’ doctor husband, Michel (Lemoine) in the secluded French country. Attracted to Michel, Adélaïde also has incestuous feelings towards her sister, Michel and Agnès’ affections toward each other a constant source of torment for Adélaïde who’s frustrations begin to manifest in the form of bizarre hallucinations which grow increasingly sadomasochistic.
Often viewed as a pastoral riff on Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), the obvious differences between the films lie in the respective titles, with the psychological break of Catherine Deneuve’s Carol in Repulsion resulting from her titular repulsion or terror regarding male sexual attention. Reynaud’s Adélaïde by contrast isn’t so much sexually repressed as desperate for physical attention regardless of gender, mentally fracturing from a lack of it, Bénazéraf’s take on hallucinatory sexual frustration feeling even more combustible. Frustration was again a return to a familiar setting for Bénazéraf but more specifically the film was shot in the same country house as La nuit la plus longue. An ideal setting, the alternate title to La nuit la plus longue, “L’enfer dans la peau” or “Hell in the Skin”, feeling more applicable to Frustration with the tension, silence and sexually charged atmosphere released through the occasional violent outburst that Bénazéraf perfected in his earlier films only heightened throughout Frustration. Featuring some of the most iconic imagery in Bénazéraf’s canon, Adélaïde’s hallucinations jolt the film out of the moments of brooding stillness as Adélaïde fantasizes about Michel terrorizing the chained-up female half of a stranded student couple she allowed to stay the night, later imagining herself in a medieval grand inquisitor role before the breakout of a dungeon orgy and most memorably, traversing a seemingly never ending hallway, each door opening to reveal Michel and Agnès in a different sexual position. Bénazéraf initially distinguishes Adélaïde’s drifts into fantasy with the obvious outlandishness and tonal shifts. However, as the film settles back into a more steady, albeit unsettlingly quiet rhythm for the final third, Bénazéraf gradually begins to obscure perception, making no distinction between objective viewpoints or by that time Adélaïde’s completely disturbed point-of-view.
Although much of Frustration does play out in Bénazéraf’s “free jazz” style, the emphasis always with Bénazéraf being mood first and foremost, it does seem as if Bénazéraf and Lemoine collaborated on more ideas than simply dialogue. Unlike Joë Caligula where the titular Joe’s incestuous feelings for his sister Brigitte were more-or-less “there” and left at that, Bénazéraf becomes more psychological with Frustration. Adélaïde remains a bit of an enigma for much of the film, however dialogue exchanges between her and Agnès do give somewhat of a glimpse into their pasts, suggesting Adélaïde grew up essentially fetishizing the close relationship the two had in their younger days. Adélaïde’s morose disposition is also revealed to be a personality trait since childhood. With Agnès taking on the protective role for her more reserved sister, Adélaïde in a sense can view Michel as a disruptor, attempting to drive a wedge between he and Agnès with Adélaïde’s repeated tall tales of Michel having a lover while simultaneously seeing herself in the lover role. Ultimately, Bénazéraf saved most of the speaking for the shoehorned moment of political discussion between Michel and the stranded students, much of the performances based purely on body language. Reynaud, Lemoine and Tessier all emitting Medusa-esque death stares late in the film when the entire mood becomes psychologically and physically unsettling. As in Franco’s Succubus, Reynaud is the definition of presence, astonishing in all of Adélaïde’s guises from her tightly buttoned up and withdrawn demeanor to the unleashed sexual fanatic of her hallucinations. Drawing immense sympathy, Reynaud is equally distressing the more violent and fanatical her fantasies become, the film’s tragic conclusion only a conclusion in one sense, Bénazéraf leaving one final detail unnervingly in question.
Released in France on October 27, 1971, Frustration was eventually imported to North American home video via the erotic distribution label Private Screenings under the asinine re-title of “The Chambermaid’s Dream” with equally unrelated cover art. While no chambermaids feature in the English version as the film itself is identical to the original French cut, the are some soundtrack differences that at times drastically alter the tone of certain scenes. The English cut has a tendency to add kitschy lounge-esque music overtop Bénazéraf’s preferred silence which might seem incidental in some scenes without the context of the silence in the original French cut. Adélaïde’s hallucinations present some interesting audio contrasts between the French and English cuts. In the original French version, Adélaïde’s visions of Michel’s torture of the student as well as the dungeon segment retain the silence save for the anguished pantings of the student on the soundtrack. The Chambermaid’s Dream however has energetic jazz cues playing overtop those scenes. While those particular moments remain effective in both versions, those types of jazz break outs a Bénazéraf’s staple, the previously mentioned kitschy lounge sounding refrains on The Chambermaid’s Dream soundtrack also replace the original silence in Adélaïde’s imagined threesome between herself, Michel and Agnès. Where they really change the mood is the moment of Adélaïde physically gratifying her feelings towards Agnès. Again, silent in the French version, the added music clashing with Bénazéraf’s intended ambiguity surrounding the real or imagined nature of the scene. Interestingly both cuts feature the same manic jazz during an extreme close-up on Tessier’s lips on a glass as well as Édith Piaf’s “Milord” playing while Adélaïde imagines herself a prostitute soliciting Michel in a bar.
Frustration was again released during a curious time for Bénazéraf with still around five years before the arrival of hardcore adult films in France and Bénazéraf’s eventual embracing of the adult industry. As the 70’s moved forward, Bénazéraf became even more emboldened in his odd fusion of sex and politics with films such as The Infamous House of Madame X (Le bordel 1900, 1974) and Black Love (L’homme qui voulait violer le monde, 1974) before anticipating his full-on move into hardcore with Adolescence pervertie (Perverted Adolescence, 1974). It was with Les deux gouines (1975) where Bénazéraf fully crossed over in the triple-x realm. Initially enjoying the rebellious creativity the industry offered until the state reared its ugly head again and stifled the French adult market with regulations, Bénazéraf was forced to shift creative priorities yet again in the 80’s. Spending most of the 80’s shooting hardcore videos mainly for American import, Frustration, Bénazéraf’s best work, still frustratingly lingers in the same 80’s video purgatory Bénazéraf closed out his career adrift in. Fifty years after its initial release in France, The Chambermaid’s Dream video release remains the films only official English language option. In truth, Bénazéraf’s body of work as a whole frustratingly remains a “those who know, know” situation, though Frustration remains Bénazéraf’s most gray marketed title among collectors. Frustratingly remaining in the same position fifty years on as previously un-restored films like Larraz’s Symptoms (1974) and Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborune (Docteur Jekyll et les femmes, 1981), Frustration is nevertheless a work of the same stature. A crowning achievement from one of the figureheads of the golden age of Euro sex and horror hybrids.
1-4. Tohill, Cathal and Tombs, Pete. Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1984. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995