Die Marquise von Sade (1976)

A reclusive countess Lina Romay, unable to experience sexual sensation, leads a lonely, self-destructive existence…

Leave it to Franco to transform Oscar Wilde’s literary favorite into an arty porn movie. Shot during the height of his productivity for producer Erwin C. Dietrich in Switzerland, Doriana Gray was – like Venus in Furs for Towers – something of a reward for a job well done from his producer. Given total creative freedom, Franco improvised this dark, twisted, oddly poetic take on The Picture of Dorian Gray, casting his newly found muse, and real-life lover, Lina Romay in the central role(s). While earlier Franco films implied dark sexuality, throughout the 1970s the director became more and more explicit in his approach. Yet, whereas the XXX rated cuts of such as Female Vampire (1973) and La Comtesse Perverse (1973) were not initially conceived as hardcore films, here the director determined to introduce hardcore sex into the mix from the get-go.

The concept is a simple one – twin sisters have each have something the other one lacks: Doriana is frustrated by her inability to achieve orgasm, while her deranged sister is hyper-sexual, climaxing on an almost hourly basis. The linkage between sex and death is explicitly drawn as Doriana, unable to cum herself, literally drains her lovers to death. The concept is similar to Franco’s earlier oral horror film Female Vampire, which also cast Romay as a lonely countess whose fellatio abilities are deadly, but the end result is more accomplished. The film is disorienting in the extreme – sequences drag on and on to an almost irritating degree, whether it be sexual interludes or sequences of characters wandering about in a daze, but the effect is oddly effective.

Time and space have little meaning in the film, which doesn’t seem to have a narrative thrust so much as a general flow of action. The tone of tragic inevitability climaxes (literally) with a stunning, protracted meeting between the two sisters, each finally giving the other what they need at the cost of their own lives. While many of Franco’s sex films have oddly unerotic sex scenes – sometimes clearly deliberately; sometimes a result of casual indifference – here the interludes are genuinely erotic and unsettling. Romay, never the most expressive of actresses, is nevertheless the perfect fetish object on which the director can pin his obsessions – in a series of progressively experimental films together, Franco would train his camera on her every body part, imbuing everything with sexual promise and often using her physical attractiveness as a mask for a darker, more alarming reality.