New Wave Softcore: José Bénazéraf’s NIGHT OF LUST
There is a very striking art film lurking underneath the crazed camp-softcore surface of this forbidden nudie crime thriller.
There is a very striking art film lurking underneath the crazed camp-softcore surface of José Bénazéraf’s Night of Lust (1963), one that evokes many other screen fever dreams that preceded and succeeded it. It’s as if Ed Wood, David Lynch, Russ Meyer, Herk Harvey and Sam Fuller all collaborated on a nudie crime thriller shot by John Alton but edited with dull scissors. And dubbed by psychotics.
Ostensibly a noir potboiler about Parisian mobsters who use strip clubs as fronts for their drug dealing, Night of Lust is more of a showcase for Chet Baker’s free jazz soundtrack and various spectacular sets of breasts. Beautiful girls seemingly adrift on heroin roll around naked in bed, smoking, vamping and sluggishly practicing their striptease acts. These interludes punctuate and often disrupt the crime story proper. There are even entire phone conversations in which the woman’s closeup is replaced with a breast-level insert shot.
The scenes all kind of hang together like junkies huddled over a single needle– the way they randomly slump and collide– but there is a great deal of visual evidence that an artist’s hand is at the wheel.
Bencaref isn’t just into objectifying women via T&A shots; he shows just as strong a fascination with isolating and stylizing startled faces.
He’s very keen on rigid legs, too.
Meanwhile, whenever these underworld types get on the phone or take a stroll, the cavernous low angles feel like Orson Welles‘ The Trial.
There are many arresting images throughout Night of Lust, but truly bizarre English-language dubbing makes them seem even stranger and more disjointed. The comically grim voiceover narrator sounds a lot like the voice of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. This is a serious docudrama, that stern tone tells us, but it feels more like what you might see behind your eyelids while half-asleep in front of the TV during the 2am Late Late Show. His conservative American contempt for all the sordid Frenchie business he describes is one of the film’s great joys. (He sounds particularly disgusted when noting that, while some girls at the strip club are professional dancers, others are “professional dope peddlers and pros-tit-yoots.”) Elsewhere, a particularly fey gangster evokes Peter Lorre on ludes. So, there is plenty of fodder here for those who would watch Night of Lust strictly for camp value.
But the images are insistently nightmarish, especially when they capture violence. Bénazéraf’s camera holds steady on faces in torment, lit scaldingly from the side.
The intensity with which our gaze is directed in those moments tells us this is not the average sexploitation picture. You’d be forgiven for mistaking some of these frames for Fritz Lang’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s or even Luis Buñuel’s.
Despite advertising itself as “banned over half the world!” Night of Lust didn’t exactly slow down Moroccan-born cult director Bénazéraf’s career, which includes 87 other movies (mostly erotic films) and veered into hardcore video porn in the ’80s. His Sexus (1965) and L’enfer sur la plage (1966) also benefited from Chet Baker musical compositions that bounce off Bénazéraf’s fragmentary non-storytelling as if riffing with it in a nightclub. On one level, Night of Lust is enjoyably addled entertainment, as a precursor to the softcore films of Radley Metzger (who later distributed some of Bénazéraf’s flicks) but at the image level shows controlled improvisatory bursts of energy fit for another provocation happening locally at the time, the French New Wave.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist who writes for Capital New York, Big Media Vandalism and Slant/The House Next Door.