One of the very few Jess Franco titles not to have any alternative versions or titles, Paula-Paula is another decisive step away from traditional cinema, towards non-narrative forms of audiso-visual self-expression.
When Paula-Paula was announced back in 2010, fans had a reason to rejoice – Jess Franco was back in action after a long silence. Maverick filmmaker’s previous work, A Bad Day at the Cemetery/La Cripta de las Mujeres Malditas (2008) remained unreleased, making Paula-Paula Jess Franco’s newest available feature film since Snakewoman (2005), a vampire film hailed by many as a return to form after some very uneven films for Kevin Collins’ One Shot Productions.
Presented as an adaptation of R.L.Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Paula-Paula is a one-hour long piece of video art focused on eroticism and split personality, both themes very dear to Jess Franco .
What makes Paula-Paula interesting to more open-minded Franco viewers and of zero value to those who like their cinema easily classifiable and with high production values, is its stripped-down, homemade look. Franco sets to work equipped with little more than a consumer digital video camera (equipped with a zoom lens, naturally) and a couple of lights on tripods. The idea to dress the director’s living-room/set (perhaps intended to represent a nightclub) with large sheets of billowing tin foil is a touch of genius, giving Paula-Paula a visual identity, with the morphing, shifting silvery background as one of the key images. Carmen Montes, muse of Franco´s digital period, stars as Paula, a stripper whose mind is plagued by a vision of her partner, Paula (Paula Davis) dancing leisurely to Friedrich Gulda´s impossibly beautiful score. The legendary Lina Romay co-stars as Alma Perira in what would be her last film appearance.
Unsurprisingly, Paula-Paula didn’t sell well when released on DVD in the US through Intervision with the viewers understandably sticking to more accessible and ‘action-packed’ vintage titles from the filmmaker’s vast back catalogue.
It would be interesting to know just how much input Jess Franco had into the editing process of his video films. Was it his idea to employ various dense video effects and overlays which mark so much of his video work, from Tender Flesh (1997) onwards? Paula-Paula and especially Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies are very interesting for the dedicated Franco fan as they show Franco in the context of modern digital filmmaking. In the video interviews from the period the filmmaker talks about making a score of new films, taking advantage of the affordable new technology. While many fans would prefer to consecrate him as a ’60s/early ’70s filmmaker, disregarding his recent output as non-filmmaking, Jess Franco has remained very open to latest cinema and TV, and professes his admiration for US films in a video interview on the Paula-Paula DVD.
I was not impressed with Paula-Paula upon the first viewing. The film seemed to fall apart after a promising opening, with the B-movie crime film clichés giving way to a series of kaleidoscopic images, devoid of any narrative context and culminating rather predictably in a lengthy lesbo scene. Like many frustrated fans, I wanted Jess to make an effort and make a less sex-obsessed film, something more structured and connected with esoteric matters some of his more renowned works (Necronomicon, A Virgin Among the Living Dead) touch upon. However, something made me revisit Paula-Paula a number of times and my opinion of the film has since changed. For all its frustrating banality, Paula-Paula has a stubborn kind or originality (at least formal) , totally absent from practically all new films coming out these days. Paula-Paula is inspirational for self-made filmmakers, as it maintains that filmmaking is more than just production values and linear stories.