Vanessa (1977) Vanessa (1977) -**

     Once in a while, you encounter a movie so shapeless, disjointed, and nonsensical that you have to ask whether it had any script at all. In the case of Vanessa, a German softcore skin flick on the post-Emmanuelle “rich girl goes globetrotting and has lots of sex” model, the answer to that question truly is, “well, no— not as such.” Although producer Karl Spiehs did get something vaguely resembling a screenplay from Kurt Nachmann, the lead writer on the inexplicably long-running Susanne Delberg series, it was patently unfinished and practically useless— barely more than a plot outline, really, and not a very detailed one at that. So Spiehs did the only sensible thing, and got on the phone to Hubert Frank, a director known for his ability to make movies quickly and cheaply despite favoring the sort of improvisational technique that usually leads to endless delays and costly reshoots. If anybody could turn Nachmann’s abortive scribblings into a releasable film, it surely would be Frank. Nevertheless, I suspect that Spiehs didn’t want to run the risk of the director reconsidering, because not only did he pay Frank up front, but he also made the call offering him the job on the Saturday before the Monday when Vanessa was scheduled to start shooting— in Hong Kong! Knowing that back story makes it somewhat easier to forgive this movie’s lumpen lousiness, but can’t do much to counteract it while you’re actually watching the film.

     Eighteen-year-old Vanessa Anden (Olivia Pascal, from The Fruit Is Ripe and Bloody Moon) has been raised and educated in a Tyrolian convent since the premature deaths of both her parents, with her wealthy Uncle Richard footing the bill. Now Richard is dead, too, and the time has come for Vanessa to fend for herself out in the real world. In one sense, it’s unfortunate that the girl has no other known relatives, insofar as her upbringing can’t possibly have done much to prepare her for the life that she’ll face as a young person on her own in the late 1970’s. But since her lack of family ties also means that she now has undivided access to her uncle’s considerable fortune, there’s undeniably an upside as well. After leaving the nunnery, Vanessa flies east to Hong Kong, where Uncle Richard’s lawyer and executor, Anthony Grüter (Peter M. Krueger), will handle the legal aspects of her inheritance, and familiarize her with what exactly she now owns.

     Vanessa has several surprises in store for her on that score. It turns out that Uncle Richard had two distinct sets of income-generating assets. One of those was conventional enough, a plantation up in the mountains encompassing rice paddies, lemon orchards, and heaven knows what else. The other, however, is the Red Orchid, a chain of whorehouses scattered across Kowloon City, including even a few specialist bordellos catering to women, where the staffs consist of brawny and attractive young men drawn from seemingly all the nonwhite populations of the British Empire. Quite a change of pace to go from convent orphan to teenaged mega-madam in one fell swoop! Also, as Grüter goes on to explain, the brothels are actually the more secure part of the estate, because the overseer of the plantation, a man by the name of Adrian (Günter Clemens, from Mark of the Devil and The Devil’s Female), has contested the will on the grounds that he’s really Richard Anden’s bastard son. Grüter is confident that he can outmaneuver Adrian in court, but Vanessa should brace herself for the possibility of losing the plantation just in case. Additionally, there’s one more complication in play that even the lawyer doesn’t know about: Adrian isn’t acting alone. Although he seems to be boning quite a few of the plantation’s female workers, there’s one in particular— a Eurasian girl called Tai-Neh (Eva Leutze, of Varsity Playthings)— who has positioned herself as sort of a Lady Macbeth figure, goading the overseer’s ambitions and encouraging him to go beyond the measures available to him under the law if that’s what it takes to win.

     In the meantime, Vanessa has Grüter’s two nieces to contend with. The elder one, Clé (Eva Eden), is a nymphomaniac married to British colonial officer Major Kenneth Cooper (Anton Diffring, of Fahrenheit 451 and The Beast Must Die). She’s always warning Vanessa about the supposed moral dangers that life in the Orient poses for white women, while enthusiastically succumbing to every single one of them. The younger is Jackie (Uschi Zech, from The Joy of Flying and Love Hotel in Tirol), a girl about Vanessa’s age who makes it her project, immediately upon meeting her uncle’s new client, to initiate Vanessa into her dual hobbies of magic and bisexuality. In the former enterprise, Jackie can call upon the aid of Prince Bandor, an Indian mystic (played by the unmistakably Teutonic Tom Garven) who has attached himself to the extended Grüter household, and is at a minimum sufficiently psychic to have intercepted Vanessa at the airport, masquerading as a chauffeur. But in the latter undertaking, Jackie understandably prefers to do all the hands-on work herself.

     Now I’m sure it looks to you like I’ve set up a plot with those past three paragraphs. Maybe it even looks like I’ve set up multiple parallel plots. And indeed a variety of actions will subsequently occur which would be consistent with perhaps as many as three of them. Adrian hatches a scheme to marry Vanessa in the hope of insuring himself against defeat in his contest of Anden’s will. Tai-Neh becomes jealous once she realizes what her lover is doing, and lays a curse on Vanessa’s pussy. Jackie engineers endless excuses for her and Vanessa to lounge around together in the nude, and draws out of her stories about her convent days revealing the Sapphic hothouse atmosphere that affected not only the other students, but even Hilda the headmistress (Gisela Kraus, from Passion Hotel and Bibi) and the mother superior (Astrid Boner— no, really!— of Love Apprentices and Sex Clinic ’74). Major Cooper eventually conceives a letch for Vanessa, plausibly reckoning that he owes his wife a little tat for all the tit she’s been lavishing on the men of Hong Kong. But when you look closely, most of those developments are just isolated incidents. They come out of nowhere, they cause nothing, and only a few of them even relate to each other in any meaningful way. Worse yet, the ostensibly major conflicts and complications are, for the most part, resolved offscreen.

     Take Tai-Neh’s vaginal hex, for example. Although the film does establish that Jackie enlists Prince Bandor to lift the malediction, we never see any of the actual conjuring. Bandor merely visits the patient to see what he’s up against, and then the matter is never spoken of again. And on an equal but opposite note, although Frank and Nachmann treat it as a climax when Major Cooper invites Vanessa over to his villa, and tricks her into shackling herself into his bespoke flogging contraption, that turn of events isn’t discernably the climax to anything. Kenneth and Clé have been barely more than background figures this whole time, their dysfunctional marriage nothing more than an excuse to throw in some sex scenes featuring a woman other than Olivia Pascal, Uschi Zech, or Eva Leutze. Indeed, Vanessa and the major have seen so little of each other up to then that it’s hard to understand how his vengeful infatuation could even have arisen. And most incredibly of all, Adrian’s lawsuit is disposed of retroactively with a curt “After having lost your claim in court to Vanessa…” (That’s Major Cooper talking, by the way, taking Adrian and Tai-Neh to task for showing up uninvited at the party he’s throwing in celebration of the girl’s legal victory— said party being the nearest thing we get to setup for the aforementioned attempt by Kenneth to force himself on her.) Not that I wanted a protracted courtroom sequence, but a quick scene of the judge ruling in Vanessa’s favor would have done wonders for the film’s continuity. Some things really do need to be shown, even if only in passing.

     What most hurts Vanessa, though, is the total incoherency of the title character. When we first meet Vanessa at the convent, she’s a sly and defiant troublemaker, essentially daring Hilda and the mother superior to whip her for smuggling in an art book entitled Eros in Pompeii. But then when she tours one of her Red Orchid brothels, she’s the stereotypical frigid virgin, traumatized to the point of hysterics by the wantonness of her aging female customers hurling themselves at the gorgeous, half-naked rentboys attending them. Similarly, although Vanessa acts as if lesbianism were something that never even occurred to her while skinny dipping with Jackie on a secluded beach, she’s perfectly casual about crawling into bed with her in the very next scene. Nor is there any reason why she shouldn’t be, since the lead-up to their coupling involves Vanessa regaling Jackie with tales of the girl-on-girl diddling that went on every night in the convent’s big, barracks-style dormitory, and reminiscing about all the times she herself quite literally bottomed for her perverted caretakers during the S&M sessions that they passed off as divinely sanctioned discipline. Vanessa shrugs off Adrian’s attempt to rape her on her first visit to the plantation, neither adding it to her tally of reasons to regard him as an adversary, nor subsequently lusting after him against her will in the manner of an Italian soft-porn heroine. For Vanessa to work as the tale of sexual awakening that it was plainly designed to be, it requires a clear trajectory to the title character’s experiences, and even more vitally, to her reactions thereto. This movie simply hasn’t got that, however— which was a hell of a thing to spring on an actress in her first starring role! That’s why I can’t fault Olivia Pascal for her performance here, no matter how inert and empty it is. I doubt that anyone could have played this part intelligibly, and a beginner like Pascal plainly never stood a chance.



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