As you’ve likely noticed, there aren’t a whole lot of new releases out there right now. As a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, almost all cinemas have entirely shut down in order to adhere to proper “social distancing” practices, prompting movie studios to either unceremoniously dump this season’s new releases to VOD streaming platforms or to delay them for the indefinite future. This disruption of movie distribution has afforded me a lot of time to tackle what I call my “Shame Pile”: a bin of assorted DVDs & Blu-rays I haven’t watched since I purchased them. A few of my physical media purchases have rotted in that Shame Pile limbo for years, but none are quite as ancient nor as shameful as the 2002 Mexican melodrama The Virgin of Lust. The cloudy, bumpy texture of its plastic casing is the biggest indicator of that shame: it was a Blockbuster Video purchase. At one time, Blockbuster’s 4-for-$20 liquidation sales of used DVDs comprised the majority of my new movie intake, especially in the days when I was too broke & too busy to make it out to the theater more than a couple times a year (between working full-time in restaurants and attempting to graduate college). It’s been a full decade since there was a Blockbuster Video operating in New Orleans, though, so it’s genuinely shameful that it took me this long to work my way through the last of my purchases from that chain’s cheap-o cast-offs. In that way, watching The Virgin of Lust was more than just some lazy, prurient afternoon viewing to help pass the time during this period of coronavirus-incited isolation. It was also an end of an era.
Immediately after hitting play, it became apparent why I waited so long to give this film a chance. It’s just so shamelessly cheap. I mean that in regards to its actual price, its production values, its approach to sexuality, and its flavor of political commentary. This film is unequivocally, unashamedly Cheap. There’s nothing especially cinematic about its execution, to the point where it reads more like a televised stage play than a legitimate Movie – complete with that soap opera frame rate effect that makes all BBC shows look like trash, even the expensive ones. The bizarre thing is I suspect that Flagrantly Cheap quality was somewhat intentional. At the very least, it’s openly acknowledged by the text. The opening & closing minutes of The Virgin of Lust summarize the life & times of its protagonist in a series of quick-cut tableaus & block-letter intertitles that spell out their intent like a children’s book: “Life flows like a river,” “Every day’s the same,” etc. It feels more like a TV ad for a movie than the actual thing, but the film eventually acknowledges that effect with a closing title card that reads “Coming soon.” So, overall The Virgin of Lust plays like a three-minute movie trailer that’s interrupted by a 2-hour stage play as its mid-ad intermission. I’m not going to say the effect of this structure is transcendent or sublime in any way, but it’s at least memorably bizarre – which is also how the film feels at large.
Questions of funding & structure aside, The Virgin of Lust is a sordid melodrama about a 1940s café waiter in Veracruz who falls into unrequited love with an opium-addicted sex worker amidst revolutionary plots to assassinate Franco. Spanish ex-pats & revolutionaries pontificate at length about the best tactics to dismantle fascist institutions, but our central character does not have much of a political mind to speak of himself. He’s singularly obsessed with a beautiful, suicidal opium addict who literally stumbles into his life, only so she can spurn his every declaration of devotion out of disgust. Despite explaining flat-out,”I’m evil and a whore. You’re an idiot and poor,” the troubled woman cannot shake the worm’s adoration, so she chooses to milk him for all he’s worth as his reluctant dominatrix. The only actual sex in this vulgar telenovela are scenes in which the cruel mistress commands that the wormy waiter lick her feet—often in public—as a sign of subservience. Otherwise, we only see our lowly working-class protagonist masturbate over his carefully curated collection of pornographic photographs. At the start of the film his mantra for this masturbation ritual is “Titty, titty, pussy, pussy,” which he whispers to himself in hushed, reverent tones. By the end, his masturbation mantra shifts to “Franco must be killed, Franco must be killed,” more out of a misguided attempt to please his friends & mistress than out of any personal political beliefs. The rest of the film merely details the daily tedium of running a small café, punctuated by surrealist dips into vulgar S&M sexuality and performances of opera & lucha libre artistry for sordid flavor.
While the artists behind this film weren’t exactly nobodies, they were also nowhere near the top of their game at the time of production. Director Arturo Ripstein got his start working under surrealist master Luis Buñuel as an uncredited Assistant Director in the 1960s. The opium-addict mistress that ties the story together was played by Ariadna Gil years before she got her big break as the mother figure (and the Queen of the Underworld) in Pan’s Labyrinth. Both perform admirably here, but neither can escape the severe limitations of the production. A large part of The Virgin of Lust‘s stage-bound quality is the limitations of its budget, which do not allow for many setting changes or any exterior shots (given the expense of producing an accurate period piece outside the confines of a sound stage). The set decoration recalls contemporary Jean-Pierre Jeunet productions in its dulled, antique luster, but that patina isn’t enough to overpower the cramped feeling of the action rarely leaving the café. Ripstein seemingly embraced that effect instead of running away from it – approaching his story through the mediums he could afford on his budget: vintage photograph tableaus, stage play dialogue exchanges, movie trailer highlight reels, etc. As a result, The Virgin of Lust can’t help but feel small & inessential, so it puts all its effort into at least being memorable. Its jolts of vulgar S&M sexuality, lucha libre iconography, and anti-fascist politics ensure that it won’t be forgotten as soon as other disposable works on its budgetary level.
It wouldn’t really be fair to ask anything more than memorability out of a used DVD that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for a solid decade. I don’t know that I could enthusiastically recommend watching the film to anyone who didn’t already have it lurking in their shame pile, though. The Virgin of Lust is a trip, but it’s not a trip worth going out of your way for.