Thursday, May 17, 2018

French Quarter (1978)



          Since the Crown International logo usually heralds low-budget movies that disappoint in predictable ways, it’s worth singling out French Quarter, which disappoints in unpredictable ways. At first, the movie adheres to the familiar little-girl-lost style, tracking a naïve young woman who stumbles into sex work. Then the picture makes a hard turn into period melodrama, with nearly an hour of the 101-minute film set in the 19th century. Nestled into the period material are subplots about a drug-addicted lesbian, a friendship between a white piano player and his black counterpart, and voodoo rituals. Both timelines feature auctions in which bidders compete for the privilege of deflowering a young woman. There’s a lot going on in French Quarter, so even though the movie is thoroughly contrived and silly, none could accuse the filmmakers of playing it safe.
          After her father dies, Christine (Alisha Fontaine) leaves her rural home and becomes an exotic dancer. One day, she’s drugged by a crook who plans to auction off Christine’s virginity. Then, by way of a hallucination or time travel or whatever, Christine becomes Trudy, the newest arrival at a New Orleans brothel. The same crisis ensues, with Trudy’s virginity getting put up for sale. Hope emerges in the form of a romance with Kid Ross (Bruce Davison), the new piano player in the brothel, who also bonds with black musician Jelly Roll (Vernel Bagneris). For reasons that defy understanding, co-writer/director Dennis Kane takes a prismatic approach to the story, exploring the lives of other prostitutes, some of whom have colorful names including “Big Butt Annie,” “Coke-Eyed Laura,” and “Ice Box Josie.” Yet Kane also makes room for lengthy stripping scenes, a Sapphic makeout session, and the aforementioned voodoo rituals. It’s a mess, with one scene attempting sensitive character work and the next presenting grindhouse sleaze, so French Quarter ultimately has little of interest for serious viewers.
          Those who savor bizarre cinema might find French Quarter more palatable. The cast blends starlets including Lindsay Bloom and Ann Michelle with cult-fave actors Bruce Davison and Lance LeGault—plus Virginia Mayo, a 1940s star appearing here in grand-dame mode. It should be noted that every so often, the picture almost gets something right, as in this hard-boiled voiceover: “If there’s one thing I know about New Orleans, anybody who wants something real bad is gonna get it real bad.” Incidentally, French Quarter came out the same year as Pretty Baby, a controversial studio picture with similar subject matter, and actor Don Hood plays minor roles in both films.

French Quarter: FUNKY

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