Color, 1975, 105 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Lina Romay, Evelyne Scott, Monica Swinn, Olivier Mathot, Raymond Hardy, Jess Franco
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
For a couple of decades, Shining Sex has been a title that pops up on lists of essential Jess Franco titles despite the fact that it's been impossible to see in anything resembling a decent version. A heady mixture of sci-fi, borderline hardcore erotica, and arty surrealism, it's one of Franco's indescribable odes to Lina Romay in the early days of their partnership when she was dominating his camera and usually playing uninhibited nightclub performers.
In what will be a surprise to absolutely no one, Shining Sex opens up with, yes, a nightclub performance with recent Las Vegas performer Cynthia (Romay) complete with gold chains, labia flaunting, and copious finger licking. Her routine catches the eye of Andros (Hardy, Romay's husband at the time), a sunglasses-clad mystery man, and his older mistress, Alpha (Devil's Kiss' Scott). A sex session in their hotel room turns bizarre when Cynthia is slathered with a sparkly lotion that compels her to do the bidding of the two strangers. That includes executing a kill list against those who have found out too much about them including Dr. Seward (Franco), Dr. Kallman (Mathot), and a spiritualist, Madame Pécame (Swinn), for these visitors have a secret that extends beyond this world.
Superficially this sounds like another of Franco's long and rewarding line of films about a woman checking off a string of victims a la Venus in Furs, The Diabolical Dr. Z, or She Killed in Ecstasy, but the execution here is anything but straightforward as the narrative is almost entirely eclipsed by the relentless depiction of desire, compulsion, and voyeurism. Romay gives her all here to put it mildly, delivering a very exhibitionistic performance up there with her startling work in Female Vampire, Lorna the Exorcist, and Doriana Grey; she's especially haunting as the film enters its final stretch and ends in another of her trademark states of cinematic paralysis. Franco would return to a simliar idea with the erotic alien comedy Sex Is Crazy in 1981, but this one plays it completely straight and emits a strange aura that's difficult to put into words. The film proved a bit difficult to market upon its completion due to its straddling between the soft and hardcore markets, the latter never quite achieved apart from some brief but visibly unsimulated cunnilingus and explicit depictions of Romay and Hardy's anatomy. That approach is easier to appreciate now in context with Franco's work as he isn't even remotely trying to satisfy the raincoat crowd; this is a personal obsession being worked out on celluloid, and while newcomers to Franco will likely be baffled, anyone who's been treading in these waters for a while will stunned.
Unfortunately this film has suffered terribly over the years on both the large and small screens, with territories from France to Japan getting versions missing various amounts of footage (with some cuts losing at least half an hour). The longest version was an English-langauge Japanese tape marred by extensive digital fogging, and the French VHS ran much shorter but had some slivers of hardcore insert footage added to complicate things. Long thought lost, the original negative finally turned up through Eurocine and served as the source for Severin's 2020 release on Blu-ray. Seeing this completely uncut and restored to its full intended scope dimensions has been a pipe dream for many Franco followers, and having it here is quite the cause for celebration. The element has obviously faded a bit over the years, but the quality here is still very impressive considering the film's endangered history and so vastly superior to anything we've had before that it truly feels like a different movie. The English track (which is about as good as any other given that this wasn't shot with live sound) is included here in DTS-HD MA mono with optional subtitles, and it sounds perfectly good with Daniel J. White's dreamy score faring the best. A new audio commentary by NaschyCast's Rod Barnett and Franco expert Robert Monell does a fine job of filling the lengthy running time with pleny of observations about Franco's working habits, the shooting in tandem with The Midnight Party as one of Franco's "secret" side films, the careers and cinematic impact of the main performers, the visual motifs here that can be found woven into his other films, and the appeal of Franco's cinema that seems to be catching fire with more people than ever these days.
As for video extras, "In the Land of Franco Part 3" (12m42s) is another enjoyable escapade with Stephen Thrower and Antonio Mayans traversing Spain and pointing out locations from films like Night Has a Thousand Sexes and Killer Barbys while noting examples of architecture that were passed off as places like Tunisia. They also visit the location where some of Franco's ashes were spread, a nice little moment. Then
"Shining Jess" (19m14s) with Thrower puts the film in context with Franco's complex relationship with Eurocine, the convoluted process of making Juliette '69 that led to this film, the intense voyeuristic aspects at play here, the parallels to writers like William S. Burroughs, and Franco's oft-denied tendency to make multiple films on a producer's dime for one feature. For some reason his voice switches to very reverb-heavy stereo going in and out of the film clips, so don't try watching this with headphones. In "Never Met Franco" (6m26s), or "Silent Running" as it's called on screeen, director and onetime post-production sound editor Gérard Kikoïne recalls working on several Franco films for their French iterations, with no live sound recording causing him and his coworkers to resort to some creative methods to generate sound and dialogue as appropriate. Amusingly, he also recounts how difficult it was to even discern the narrative in some cases when elements like flashbacks were involved. Though not listed on the packaging, "Franco at Eurocine" (17m39s) features company head Daniel Lesoeur covering the studio's colorful history including the participation of his father Marius and Franco, which wove through numerous different genres for local and international consumption and extended through the breakup of Franco and Romay's marriages to others at the time (with Nicole, Franco's wife, making a cameo at the beginning of this film).
In "Franco-Philia" (29m13s), filmmaker Christophe Gans offers a lengthy love letter to the filmmaker who first impacted him with a viewing of Daughter of Dracula and grew to become a significant artistic influence. Also included are a trailer and a reel of "Very NSFW Outtakes" (13m11s) featuring extreme close-ups of Romay's anatomy at work with two of her co-stars in far more graphic detail than anything in the main feature. For many fans, the real gem here is going to be the inclusion of a bonus CD, "Daniel J. White: In the Land of Franco Vol. 1," which compiles 14 tracks (many in beautiful stereo) from Tender and Perverse Emmanuelle, Female Vampire, Midnight Party, Shining Sex, Barbed Wire Dolls, and Elles font tout. Just don't blame the label for any unnatural urges you might feel while listening to it.
Reviewed on June 25, 2020