The Kidnapped Heiress

The French film poster for SEXUS (1965).

When it comes to crime films, what’s your pleasure? The genre breaks down into so many sub-categories that it helps if you have a particular theme in mind. Bank Heists? Home Invasions? Police procedurals? Gang wars? How about kidnapped heiresses? James Hadley Chase’s 1939 pulp fiction novel No Roses for Miss Blandish is a classic example of this edge situation and has been adapted for films at least twice – the 1948 British noir of the same title starring Jack La Rue and The Grissom Gang (1971), Robert Aldrich’s violent remake with Kim Darby as the unfortunate victim. Even real-life cases involving kidnapped heiresses have inspired numerous crime dramas such as the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst which spawned Abducted (1975), a sleazy exploitation rip-off from director Joseph Zito, The Ordeal of Patty Hearst, a 1979 made-for-TV dramatization, Patty Hearst (1988), Paul Schrader’s take on the events with Natasha Richardson in the title role, and probably the best of the lot, Robert Stone’s 2004 documentary, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. But, if you want to see an arty, minimalistic treatment of the kidnapped heiress theme with erotic interludes and a cool jazz score by trumpeter Chet Baker, look no further than L’enfer dans la peau (1965), a French softcore crime drama from director/writer/producer Jose Benazeraf, and released in the U.S. in an edited form entitled Sexus.

In the innocuous opening shot of the film, we get an overhead view of a busy Parisian street as a young woman walks along followed by two suspicious looking men. While she is window shopping, the two men approach her, threaten her with a car and she is escorted to their car without attracting the attention of anyone. Whisked away to a remote farmhouse in the country, Virginie (Virginie Solenn), the kidnap victim, is held captive by three criminals and their female accomplice as they wait for Virginie’s wealthy father to pay the ransom. The hours drag by, tensions develop between the thugs and the mastermind behind the plot threatens to have the victim killed if they don’t receive payment in a timely manner. Meanwhile, Virginie finds herself attracted to Pierre (Alain Tissier), one of her jailers, and he begins to have second thoughts about his involvement in the kidnapping.

A wealthy heiress (Virginie Solenn) is kidnapped by two hired thugs, Pierre (Alain Tissier, left) and Carl (Yves Duffaut) and held for ransom in the French sexploitation film SEXUS (1965).

While the set-up suggests a tense, claustrophobic melodrama, Sexus is something else entirely and director Benazeraf is less interested in exploring the dramatic aspects of the scenario than concentrating on the erotic and sadistic aspects of the captor/prisoner relationship. The result is a slow, languid mood piece that is so stripped down to the bare essentials that it seems more like some existential avant-garde exercise in which the female body and specific items in the farmhouse are fetishized like guns, clocks, knives and intimate apparel. Character development, even dialogue, is kept to a minimum and the atmosphere within the hideout takes on a theater of the absurd quality as the kidnappers play cards, smoke cigarettes, drink beer and arm wrestle to pass the time.

Francoise (Willy Braque) watches as his mistress (Annie Josse) strips for his pleasure in the 1965 French film SEXUS.

What distinguishes Sexus from the same type of exploitation thriller that was being made in the U.S. at the time like Lee Frost and David F. Friedman’s The Defilers (1965) – a notorious roughie in which two men kidnap a woman and make her their sex slave in an abandoned warehouse – is Benazeraf’s cool detached approach which brings a Beatnik-like vibe to the proceedings, enhanced by Alain Derobe’s elegant black and white cinematography and a seductive music score composed by Chet Baker. The women are also gorgeous and sexy and consistently filmed as objects of desire through the male gaze. Acting is not as important in a Benazeraf film as posing, stripping or frolicking nude in the woods and it is all done with considerable style. In fact, Benazeraf rarely used professional actresses and liked to select non-professionals on the basis of their appearance, which needed to be chic and classy.

Virginie Solenn stars as the kidnapped heiress in the 1965 French film SEXUS, directed by Jose Benazeraf.

What is important to understand is that Benazeraf, who was labeled ‘The Godard of Porn” during his early career, hated censorship and officials interfering in what the public could and couldn’t see. He enjoyed pushing the limits of what was allowed on the screen in terms of nudity, sex and sadism because he felt it was a necessary attack on bourgeois society. The director also believed in its poetic and liberating virtues as noted in his statement, “Pornography and eroticism can only survive if they are transcended by lyricism. It has to be a song of love.”

Although Benazeraf is not well known in the U.S., he has become a cult director in France over the years for his early soft core crime dramas which shared some stylistic similarities with his peers in the French New Wave – hand-held cinematography, real locations, jump cuts, non-professional actors, improvisation and a disinterest in conventional narrative forms. Some sequences in Sexus come out of nowhere such as a visit to a secret nightclub where two topless women perform a master/slave whip dance before a mute and jaded crowd while other scenes utilize physical action to advance the narrative like a long, fierce knife fight between Pierre and Carl (Yves Duffaut).

Virginie (Virginie Solenn) feels herself being attracted to Pierre (Alain Tissier), one of the men who kidnapped her and demands a ransom from her father in SEXUS (1965).

The conclusion to Sexus is appropriately enigmatic and downbeat. Virginie is delivered to the chieftain behind the kidnapping plot (we never learn if the ransom was paid or if Virginie survives) while Pierre returns to the farmhouse at night where he suddenly surrounded by a ring of police cars. He falls to the ground, illuminated by the head beams of their cars, and classical music swells up as he assumes a kneeling position as if praying while the director ends the shot as a freeze frame.

Is this the end of Pierre (Alain Tissier) or a new beginning for him in SEXUS, a 1965 French sexploitation film.

Those expecting Sexus to be a sex film will not only be disappointed and bored but also probably dismiss it as pretentious due to some of the more oddball moments like Virginie’s unexpected soliloquy about her family. “My grandfather was a radical, my father a socialist. I’m a communist,” she states, “My family never changed. In this old country of civil wars, antagonisms outlast the memories of their causes. It’s often said the French never reconciled after the fall of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVII. But at what point in their history weren’t they in a quarrel?” Rare outbursts like this only underline the eclectic nature of Sexus and raise the question of whether the director was treating the whole film as a political metaphor for the current state of France.

Benazeraf, who got his start as a producer in the late fifties, moved into the director’s chair in 1963 with L’eternite pour nous, a sexy triangle relationship drama about a pianist/composer, his voluptuous girlfriend and a female bar owner at a French seaside resort. It was a surprise hit and earned notoriety for its sex scenes and nudity which outraged the censors but now look remarkably tame in terms of what was to come. The film got picked up for U.S. distribution in an edited version (minus twenty minutes of footage) under the title Sin on the Beach. It was exactly the type of popular continental sexploitation fare that played drive-ins and grindhouses in the early sixties before American independents starting making more hardcore adult features.

Benazeraf followed Sin on the Beach with an even bigger success, Le concerto de la peur (1963), which was released in the U.S. as Night of Lust, and depicted the rivalry of two gangster clans over a dope smuggling racket. The mixture of violence and sex with Benazeraf’s arty, stylized approach made it novel and it marked the first of three collaborations with film composer Chet Baker (their final film together was L’lenfer sur la plage, 1966).

Sexus, Benazeraf’s fifth feature film, was picked up for U.S. distribution by Radley Metzger, who soon emerged as a director of classy European erotica with glossy releases like Carmen, Baby (1967) and Camille 2000 (1969). Metzger’s stylistic approach to material may have been influenced by Benazeraf’s hypnotic, slow-burn sensuality but both directors ended up moving into X-rated hardcore adult features as audiences demanded more explicit sex scenes.

Maverick French director Jose Benazeraf

In an interview with Film Comment, Metzger once stated that “He [Benazeraf] 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.” Unfortunately, Metzger ended up trimming more than 30 minutes from Sexus because, “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.”

Benazeraf hit his peak with Joe Caligula – Du suif chez les dabes starring French New Wave favorite Gerald Blain as the head honcho of a violent Parisian gang. Made in 1966 but held up by the censors for release until 1969, the film’s ultra-violence and anarchic characters seemed derivative after the release of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. As a result, Joe Caligula was not a success and lost money. After that Benazeraf concentrated more and more on pure sexploitation fare, eventually retiring in 1999 with more than 90 films to his credit. Unfortunately, during those final years Benazeraf was reduced to making direct-to-video pornography with titles such as Ingrid, Whore of Hamburg (1984), Trashy Tourist (1985) and Naughty French Fantasies (1986). Similar to his compatriot Jean Rollin, who specialized in erotic horror films featuring vampires or zombies and plenty of female nudity, Benazeraf is now revered by fans for his arty blending of crime drama with eroticism in his early sixties work and Sexus is a great place to start.

Sexus was previously distributed on VHS by Audubon Films but has never received an official DVD release in the U.S. You might be able to find a DVD import version of the film from French online sellers but I suspect that Jose Benazeraf’s work will enjoy a revival of interest in the future due to Blu-ray distributors like Severin Films and Vinegar Syndrome, who have devoted themselves to rescuing forgotten and obscure movies by marginalized directors like Benazeraf.

Other links of interest:

https://www.spectacletheater.com/the-proust-of-the-softcore-the-crime-films-of-jose-benazeraf/

https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/movie-poster-of-the-week-the-films-of-radley-metzger

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