Wednesday, January 28, 2009

99 Women

99 women poster“Behind bars. . . without men!” is the tagline for 99 Women, a campy 1969 women’s prison film, promising steamy lesbian sex scenes from Spanish director Jesus Franco who is known for, well, steamy lesbian sex scenes. However, contemporary reviewers were quite disappointed at the lack of “hotness” that the film provides; indeed, a recent purchaser of the film on demands his money back for this very reason. Given that there was a decent budget and a relatively well-known cast, it seems Franco’s usual audacity in sex scenes was limited to out-of-focus close-ups, much to the chagrin of genre devotees. This chagrin should extend to the ambiguities in the plot and the confusion concerning its cultural and geographical context.

The setting is a castle prison on a jungle island off the coast of Panama. The island is nicknamed "Pleasure Island," the castle “Castillo de la Muerte” (Castle of Death). Three well-endowed convicts, Marie, Helga, and Natalie, arrive to serve their sentences. In their first meeting with the sadistic warden Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), they are assigned numbers and told that they no longer have names. Marie is number 99. Suddenly they are plunged into a harsh regime of torture, rape, and abuse. The first night, Natalie, played by Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi, falls ill from the withdrawal symptoms of her heroin use. Although Marie calls the prison guards for help, Natalie is ignored; by morning, she is dead. The next day all the inmates are doing their labour in the work yard when a catfight breaks out between Marie and another beautiful inmate, Zoie. These two are sent to the “punishment room” for discipline, which comes in the form of Governor Santos, the warden of the nearby men’s prison. Despite her initial resistance, after a few slaps from Zoie, Marie subjects herself to a sexual encounter with Zoie and Governor Santos.

A new warden, Leonie Carol (Maria Schell), arrives and tries to improve the prisoners' conditions, but she faces the corrupt team of Diaz and Santos, who undermine her every decision and thus the prisoners' situation only gets worse. Meanwhile, Zoie and Marie are put in the same cell, and continue their absurd love-hate sexual relationship. In a moment of affection they reveal their crimes, and it turns out they have both been falsely convicted. Zoie was a stripper for a lesbian club, but when she tried to leave, the club’s owner threatened her with a gun. Her act of self-defense resulted in the his death, and she was sent to prison. Marie accepted a ride from a stranger, who kidnapped her and gang-raped her with other men. In trying to defend herself, Marie killed one of these men--but no one believed her story at her trial. Warden Diaz says, “This prison is a place for women who have broken the rules of society,” implying some sort of mysterious oppressive society. It never becomes clear where these women come from, and what society’s rules they have broken.

One day, a prisoner from the men’s camp contacts a female prisoner, Rosalie, and helps her to plan an escape. Rosalie, Helga, and Marie conspire together and flee at dawn. They must make their way through a treacherous jungle until they get to the other side of the island, where there is a fishing village and boats they can use to complete their escape. On the way, they meet an escapee from the men’s prison, Ricardo, who helps them hide from the search parties. They spend the night in a cave, where Ricardo and Rosalie sleep together. The next morning, they come across a group of male convicts who are eating in the jungle. When these men see the three scantily clad and sexy women, they go crazy. After killing Ricardo, they proceed to rape and kill Rosalie, while Marie and Helga take flight. These two make it to the fishing village. Ecstatic and exhausted, they run towards the boats and into the sea. Just then, a shot is fired into the air. Behind them is Governor Santos, clad in gray military-wear, and his soldiers. “We’ve been waiting for you all day,” he gloats. Back to the cold, violent Castillo de la Muerte they go. The new warden Carol has given up trying to break the corrupt and cruel prison system, leaving it in the hands of the vicious Warden Diaz and the governor, who promise to make prison existence a living hell for the rest of their days. Marie, Helga, Zoie, and the rest of the inmates are left at their mercy.

The eerie and almost Kafkaesque atmosphere of the film goes beyond the rape scenes and violence and extends to the confusion surrounding the culture and place to which it refers. The island is in Panama, but footage reveals it to be anything but tropical, except in the depiction of the dense jungle. Panama, or even Latin America, seems to show its face in few aspects of the film. Only three of the characters have Latin-sounding names: Ricardo, Thelma Diaz, and Governor Santos. The female inmates all seem to be from Europe or America, but the characters have similar nonspecific accents. The island’s English name contrasts with the prison’s Spanish name. Governor Santos is the only one who gives us much of a clue; his stereotypical military caudillo-type outfit and ruthless, corrupt manner suggest some sort of Central American authoritarian regime. Otherwise, the disappointing lack of clarity of the context converges with the disappointing lack of clarity of the sex scenes.

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