Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Lina Romay, Susan Hemingway, Armando Borges, Mel Rodrigo, Aida Gouveia, George Santos, Albino Graziani
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Manga Films (DVD) (Spain R2 PAL)
The career of Jess Franco hit an unusually odd patch in the early '80s after he relocated back to Spain, where he alternated a handful of very cheap, international cannibal films with more personal, erotically-charged projects. One of the very best of these is Sinfonía Erótica, a claustrophobic, carnal chamber piece promoted as another of his Marquis De Sade adaptations. In fact it really plays around with the infamous writer's themes more than any particular storyline, since Franco was in a very Sadean frame of mind at the time with very loose revisit to Eugenie and Justine occurring the same year. It also marks the first of two pairings between Franco's long-running muse Lina Romay and young actress Susan Hemingway, who had earlier anchored one of his best films of the '70s, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun. (Their second film would be the very different Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties.)
Returning to her country estate after a nervous breakdown, the fragile Martine (Romay) finds that something's amiss with her husband, the Marquis de Bressac (Borges). Specifically, he's brought in an unusually attentive and sinister young man, Flor (Rodrigo), to live at the house, and it turns out they're sharing each other's bodies as well. Soon after they also bring in a a wayward novice from a nearby convent, Norma (Hemingway), who throws an even more disruptive wrench into the workings of this dysfunctional household.
Though the title might lead you to expect a typical Euro softcore sex film, Sinfonía Erótica has a lot more on its mind than you might expect. With its relentless Liszt soundtrack, heavy star filters, and dreamy period setting, it feels more like a classic Jimmy Sangster-penned Hammer thriller hijacked by Walerian Borowczyk. There's a fair amount of sex here (including an atypical albeit tame love scene between the two men), but it isn't as graphic as you might expect thanks to a reliance on a dark aesthetic that relies heavily on close ups and strange experiments with depth of field and focus. The final half hour is basically straight-up thriller material and even borders on pure horror at times, including some bloody stabbings and perverse plot twists. Sporting a blonde wig, Romay is shot less flatteringly than usual for the time but can still do dialogue-free mania with the best of them, using her very expressive eyes and frequently unclothed body to maximum effect here.
Unreleased on English-friendly home video for decades, Franco's film comes to the U.S. in fine condition via Severin's separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. As with its release of another Spanish Franco film from the same era, The Sadist of Notre Dame, it opens with a disclaimer that this 4K-sourced transfer is from the only good quality 35mm print available -- but it's far, far better than the old Spanish VHS and DVD editions, which have been the source for bootleg copies for years. It's an intentionally distressed-looking film with heavy doses of natural, blown-out light and heavy film grain, which tellingly freezes during opticals like the end titles. The Blu-ray handles the demands of the source quite well and looks pleasing in motion, though even the most generous compression in the world would have a tough time with an outdoor afternoon scene halfway through that ladles on the diffusion and grain so heavily it defies belief. The DTS-HD MA Spanish track (looped, in keeping with the practices of the time) sounds perfectly fine for what it is, with optional English subtitles provided. The late Franco appears here for an interview (6m34s) about his first wife, Nicole Guettard, the film's set decorator, with whom he spent twelve years and remained friends until her death from Alzheimer's. The exact chronology here is a little tough to follow, especially when it comes to her medical fate, but it's a valuable snapshot of the director in the final interview session he granted for the label. Also included is a new chat with Stephen Thrower (22m22s), who tackles the film's challenging cinematic style, the unusual nature of its gender combinations for the sex scenes, the questionable nature of the Marquis's very glam earring, and the odd Marquis De Sade elements in the story.
Reviewed on March 26, 2018.