There comes a time in every cult film fan’s life when they must bite the bullet and admit to themselves that they will likely never truly “get” Jesús “Jess” Franco. It may take years of attempts as well as multiple instances of genuinely convincing yourself that you know what you’re getting into when the words “Directed by JESS FRANK” (or some other perversion that may or may not be similar to his actual name) crops up on the screen.
But few of us can be like Tim Lucas, who defended the Spanish director’s honor in the pages of Video Watchdog in a time where his already-perplexing works were made even more inscrutable by choppy editing and bad pan-and-scan transfers, or Stephen Thrower, who wrote two books on the guy’s work. You’re most likely like the rest of us, intrigued, occasionally captivated, possibly determined to plow through as many Franco films as possible in an effort to truly figure him out – but ultimately, attempting to know the unknowable. One film you find brilliant. (Personally, this would be VAMPYROS LESBOS or EUGENIE… THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION.) The next is unwatchably awful. The next is stylish and vivid, but mean-spirited and dull. Franco will forever remain a crapshoot.
This baffling nature is no better exemplified by the 1980 film with the English title TWO FEMALE SPIES WITH FLOWERED PANTIES, a conspicuous title on any genre film fan’s shelves, and one just issued on Blu-Ray from the ever-reliable Severin. (Pick up their previous Franco releases of VAMPYROS LESBOS and SHE KILLED IN ECSTACY as well!) By any sense of common cinematic wisdom, TWO FEMALE SPIES is a tonal mess – part comedic spy caper with notes of genuine sadism and some of the (intentionally) most laughable stripping in cinema history, the film bounces around from genre to genre so chaotically that it’s no surprise that whoever came up with the English title (the original Spanish version translates to “Opal of Fire: Sex Merchants”) just threw up their hands and wrote the first random thing that the film contained – even though I didn’t see any flowered panties on display.
The English-dubbed film’s inexplicable qualities are on display right from the opening sequence, as our heroines (not yet spies) perform an incredibly awkward striptease that they hum along to without musical accompaniment. (“Let’s just move around and then strip,” one says, and that’s about the extent of the effort given, resulting in their patron calling them “outright shit.”) The tease, however, is just an audition for the two ladies on their way to jail, and Cecile (Lina Romay) is told that they’ll be free if she works undercover in nightclub, photographing a potential human trafficker.
Brigitte (Lynn Monteil) isn’t as well-informed, but the pair make their way to Las Palmas, where they begin to perform their graceless lesbian strip act at the Flamingo Club, which, naturally, is owned by a couple that keeps female erotic celebrities as sex slaves with the help of a hypnotic opal that places them at the mercy of the beautiful Irina (Joëlle Le Quément). Cecile starts out as a photographer but soon gets way too involved, while Brigitte spends some quality time with gay artistic director Milton (Mel Rodrigo). Eventually Cecile works her way into being kidnapped herself and stages a breakout, while Brigitte ends up getting involved with the Governor who hired them. Chaos and ridiculousness ensue.
It’s not that surprising that TWO FEMALE SPIES is, by any stretch of the imagination, a tonal nightmare, as it moves from whimsical sexiness as the two leads practice their act to zany gags involving a parrot to rape sequences that are meant as alternately traumatic and funny. (If you thought the episode of “Too Close for Comfort” where Monroe gets raped is the height of hilarity, this is the movie for you!) Some of these tonal shifts are clearly intentional, and Franco genuinely seems to want to unsettle the audience as much as possible, while others just seem like an accident of editing, but the overall effect makes TWO FEMALE SPIES constantly compelling, even if you’re just kind of along for the ride to see what kind of bizarre cinematic decisions get made next. It technically all makes sense in a holding-on-to-narrative-structure-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth sort of way, but if you’re looking for a screwball sex farce or a secret agent adventure or a grimy story about kidnapping or a tale of government conspiracy or a story about hippies in the desert – well, you’ll find all five, but not necessarily in the order you expect.
This discord is certainly addressed in the film’s special features by Franco himself, who, in an archival interview, talks about not wanting to be constrained by genre as well as comparing the film to his Red Lips films (though TWO FEMALE SPIES is considerably grimier) and the SAS novels by Gérard de Villiers. In a more recent interview, writer Stephen Thrower talks about the making of the film, noting how it compares to Franco’s other films of the era. The features also include a 1993 Donald Farmer interview with composer Daniel White (his score is one of the film’s highlights), who talks about working with Franco while valiantly attempting to light his pipe. A reel of outtakes rounds out the extras on the Blu-ray.
The first 3,000 discs also include the Spanish-language cut of the film (with English subtitles), which somehow makes even less sense, omitting the opening segment that sets up the premise (it’s instead briefly referenced in voice-over) and features some altered dialogue and additional sequences (including one mind-boggling stage performance involving a severed head). This version isn’t restored, and is presented on the second disc, a DVD, and looks a bit worse for wear. The FEMALE SPIES cut looks significantly better, and both cuts are presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
TWO FEMALE SPIES is filled with such a cornucopia of odd scenes that it’s virtually impossible to make it sound UNinteresting, even if they actual execution may leave you with a case of cinematic whiplash. (In other words, it’s a Jess Franco film.) Severin has done their usual commendable job of putting together a great package for such a schizophrenic oddity, and anyone who’s looking for a film that allows Kennedy assassination theories, lengthy stripteases, and threats to “slit her snatch” and pour salt into the wound to co-exist in one Eurotrash stew will have much to savor.
- JIM WYNORSKI RETURNS WITH THE CREATURE FEATURE ‘GILA’ - May 1, 2014