Les Chiennes (1973)

Adapted from a lesser known novel by famous French poet Jean Breton, who passed away in 2006, LES CHIENNES represents then still fledgling filmmaker Michel Lemoine’s most ambitious undertaking in the gradually unfolding Continental skin flick trade. Hot on the heels of his reasonably well-received LES DESAXEES, its lukewarm critical and commercial response caused him to temporarily abandon involved narrative structures in favor of the genre’s more familiar, loosely knitted vignette format with LES CONFIDENCES EROTIQUES D’UN LIT TROP ACCUEILLANT and LES PETITES SAINTES Y TOUCHENT, until his return to form with the jaw-dropping LES WEEKENDS MALEFIQUES DU COMTE ZAROFF. As the movie meat market demanded ever more explicit fare, Lemoine moved with the times, assuming the porn name of “Michel Leblanc” for a series of above average hardcore titles, many of them starring Polish Marilyn Monroe lookalike Olinka Hardiman, with ROSALIE SE DECHAINE and MOBILHOME GIRLS the cream of the crop. A well-liked B movie actor throughout the ’50s and ’60s (perhaps most memorably in Jess Franco’s RED LIPS twosome as well as his fabulously feverish SUCCUBUS), Lemoine’s decision to cast himself in the male lead was probably not as narcissistic as it might seem. Still, filling the role of macho adventurer Eric, who takes a job as male “companion” (I suppose the term “escort” had not yet been coined) in order to fund his next worldwide expedition, makes him extremely vulnerable to not altogether unjustified howls of derision. Summoned to the mansion of a prospective client, the mysterious and notoriously hard to please Viriane (indelibly portrayed by his Mrs., the supremely stylish Janine Reynaud, a former fashion model for designer Jean Patou), he’s initially dismissed with little fanfare until he creeps into her bedroom at night to, well, “convince” her of his abilities by strapping her to the four-poster with matching scarlet scarves and thoroughly ravishing her. In fairy tale fashion (a recurring motif throughout that may have worked better in Breton’s original prose), she allows him to stay as her lover for one month, giving him full access to the castle grounds save for a hunting lodge she’s convinced is haunted. A series of kinky parlor games ensues with a collection of story book archetypes revolving around the central couple, like the disfigured gamekeeper Pierre (wild-haired Yves Marouani) who Viriane admits was a former lover for the course of one summer and adoring girl servant Lisbeth (breathtakingly beautiful, exotic Latana Decaux, who sadly seems to have fallen below radar after this single shot at sex stardom) who jumps at Viriane’s slightest for a chance to share her well-frequented bed. Complications arise however when Viriane’s kid sister, the apparently innocent though equally perfidious Tessa (scrumptious Nathalie Zeiger, who had already co-starred with Reynaud in Daniel Daert’s excellent LES FELINES, making them both “kittens” as well as “bitches” !), comes home to visit from boarding school. Off limits to Eric, his very life the price to pay should he breach their agreement, Tessa soon decides her sibling’s hired hand should take her maidenhead, an offer he finds impossible to pass up. Predictably, tragedy strikes as this tale’s evil queen unleashes her all-consuming wrath, with a cruelly ironic twist. For most of the film’s running time, Lemoine manages an effectively otherworldly atmosphere, aided no end by his regular contributors DoP Philippe Théaudière who imbues every dark nook and cranny of the castle and its fog-shrouded grounds with a sense of impending doom and composer Guy Bonnet – a two time Eurovision song contestant, would you believe ? – providing myriad orchestral variations on a single hauntingly romantic theme. The acting’s generally competent if a tad wooden, something of an inevitable consequence of the overblown dialog that was presumably lifted ad verbatim off the written page and might have choked more talented thespians than these. Lemoine at least largely looks the part, with Reynaud and Zeiger offering intriguingly contrasting versions of desirable yet deadly womanhood. For longtime fans of unwrapped cinematic delights, the movie provides a welcome souvenir of some of the genre’s unjustly forgotten sirens. Ravishing redhead Virginie Vignon was a surprisingly accomplished comedienne who adds a few welcome (intentional) laughs as frisky farm girl Martine who’s chased into the water by vengeful Viriane after she has let Eric cop a feel. A regular bit part player in ’70s soft-core cinema (including Jean Desvilles’ JEUX POUR COUPLES INFIDELES and Jean-François Davy’s INFIDELITES), she would remain highly visible in crowd-pleasing French farce and on local TV over decades to come. Unfortunately, the same fate did not befall raven-haired stunner Marie-Hélène Regne, who turned up in most of Lemoine’s naughty numbers along with Jean Rollin’s JEUNES FILLES IMPUDIQUES. As Viriane’s upper-crust best friend Joëlle, she shares a most memorable threesome with the Lemoines in the stable, partly shot through the horse’s legs ! The director always seems to be on the look-out for ingenious ways to frame the sex, mirror-reflected images apparently a particular favorite, making the movie look decidedly dated, a curious relic of irretrievable times gone by.