Some light bondage and some heavy nudity, shot in warm soft focus, mark the German-produced, Hong Kong-shot, dubbed-in-English "Vanessa" as a typical product of the '70s softcore industry. In the wake of 1974's "Emmanuelle," European producers couldn't churn out "exotic" erotica fast enough for export to American second-run or grindhouse theaters; the films would go on in a few years to have an unplanned-for second life as late-night adult programming in the early days of pay cable.
And "fast" certainly applies to "Vanessa," which, we learn in the supplementary material on Severin's well-produced DVD, was shot in a matter of weeks and with an incomplete and largely ignored screenplay. Veteran skin purveyor Hubert Frank admits in a new interview that back in the day, he and others in the same field worked in quantity, not quality. So he had no problem signing on for a movie that had a script "that everyone knew" was a mess but no one seemed too concerned about fixing. "I was hired as an improvisational director," Frank says with a smile. "Nothing was prepared from one day to the next," adds director of photography Franz X. Lederle.
The story line, if you can find it, seems to go like this: Beautiful young convent-raised Vanessa (Olivia Pascal) learns her last living relative has died and bequeathed to her a lucrative chain of bordellos in Hong Kong, as well as a sizable piece of land. She heads East and immediately befriends a group of wealthy and idle Europeans, including a young but savvy bisexual, Jackie (Uschi Zech), Jackie's promiscuous sister and the sister's elegant but sinister husband, Major Cooper. The latter is played by the respected Anton Diffring, a German star of such substantial works as "The Blue Max" and Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451"; he must have had to count to zehn many times here to keep his cool.
There's also a handsome blond guy, Adrian (Gunter Clemens), who runs a vineyard on the land Vanessa stands to take over, and is ready to fight her (and practically rape her) for it. That is, until, within about 5 minutes of screen time, he falls in love with her. Then there's a weirdo prince (played by a huge-eyed look-alike for the late American actor Edward Albert) who brags, "At a distance, I can copulate with a woman without anyone even noticing." Okay, but where's the fun in that?
But all plot is secondary to the nudity and sex. The tall, lovely 20-year-old Pascal, while no actress, knows how to be naked, as do many of the other actresses and extras (the men remain coyly unexposed). And "Vanessa" has something else that really tells you we're in the '70s: pubic hair.
A mildly troubling, politically correct note: While the film is set and shot in Hong Kong, no Asians, except for some dialogue-less extras, appear. And the few Asian characters with lines are played, with little attempt at makeup, by Europeans. Perhaps the German crew's having to deal with non-German-speaking actors would have caused the unforgivable: a production slowdown.
"Vanessa" is another fine DVD from erotica excavators Severin Films. The movie, shot in Playboy pastels of the 1970s, has been nicely restored and is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen. The sudden cutaways from scenes that don't seem finished is not the fault of the print: that's the way the film was edited.
The sound is Dolby Digital mono, but no amount of techno-futzing around can overcome the awfulness of dubbed dialogue; removing the original German speech also meant removing the natural ambient sound, which leaves us with that annoying hollowness.
The disc's extras are worthwhile. There's an original English-language trailer that makes the film actually look good, and gives away a good deal of the nudity. A half-hour-long 2007 joint interview with director Hubert Frank and cinematographer Franz X. Lederle is more interesting than anything in the movie itself would lead you to expect. And a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette offers soundless raw footage of scenes being shot (apparently, decades before DVD extras would become de rigueur, someone thought it would be a good idea to film the cameramen filming the movie). The footage is chiefly of the nude scenes and provides some closeups you won't see in the finished film.
The main menu features a still shot of starlet Olivia Pascal, as well as some quadrants with live-action nudity. The 15 chapter selection screens have still shots to help you locate favorite frolicsome moments.
Hardly a good movie, 1977's "Vanessa" is nevertheless watchable both as an artifact of post-"Emmanuelle" erotica and for the copious skin on display. Olivia Pascal, a Jessica Biel-ish beauty, says little but gets her message across just fine. The extras are solid and this disc would rank as "recommended" if only the film made a bit more sense.