It’s rare to see an erotic thriller, as we used to call them, these days. Has any subgenre fallen so precipitously out of fashion since its heyday a few short decades ago? The ’90s were rife with sexy killers, but in today’s age of spandex-and-spectacle superhero sagas, pretty much no one in film has sex. The dominance of PG-rated franchise fare is one reason. A heightened sensitivity to actors in performance (e.g. the fallout from Blue Is the Warmest Color) is another. So too is a general reluctance to depict actors as sexual objects—something cinema used to do with regularity. Recent outings in the genre have met with disdain. But a small Venezuelan film, released last year and new to SVOD services this week, Jezabel, neatly displays and deconstructs nearly every trope of the erotic thriller, especially beautiful young people having sex. And lots of it.
Even then, Jezabel is up to something. Just when it feels like the film is a throwback to the sex-filled thrillers of decades past, it has a nifty way of deconstructing what you see.
“Memory is tricky, isn’t it? You just remember what you want, the way you want,” says a handsome young Venezuelan man Alain (Gabriel Agüero) of his younger, hedonistic days. Those, he reminisces, were full of wild sex, drugs, and pranks with his cohort of female partners: snarky Cacá (Chakti Maal), savvy Lolo (Johanna Juliethe), and sexy Eli (Eliane Chipia). The four of them, against the backdrop of protest in the streets, spent their days in drug-fueled orgies, languid reverie, and salacious pranks.
Jezabel takes its title from this first of its two timelines, as the three girls, in a quiet moment between the foursome’s lovemaking, casually plan out their futures. The others are thinking careers in pharmacy, maybe, or early childhood education. Eli, though, sees her future in sex work. She’ll just start her own porn site, call it “Jezabel,” from the Bible, tease and titillate her subscribers, and roll in the monetized earnings that flow her way.
It’s one of more than a few scenes from the film’s “early” timeline, 16 years in the past, that turns out to be presented from the idealized memories of Alain. Those past days had the world at the feet of these affluent, careless young hedonists, who did as they wished without concern for others. They had sex– lots and lots of it, and the film is not at all shy about depicting it—did drugs, even went so far as to line up campers for blow jobs at their summer camp gig. As Alain’s memories progress, the foursome’s misdeeds escalated to the point where they are no longer simple, harmless experimentations in polyamory and pharmaceuticals.
Then– and this is not a spoiler, as it happens early in the film’s first act, tragedy strikes. Poor Eli is found dead under mysterious circumstances. Alain recalls their too-chummy school teacher, Santiago (Giovanny García), was charged, tried, and convicted for her murder. In the present, Alain begins to confront the consequences of his and his friends’ past. When he meets and falls into a feverish affair with journalist Salvador (Erich Wildpret), the two of them begin exploring Eli’s death and Santiago’s imprisonment.
The further the two plunge into the mysteries of the past, the more and more Alain’s memories begin to seem suspect. Scenes once presented as the foursome’s reality are revealed to be something of a convenient fiction, ones constructed to alleviate grief and guilt. As Alain replays the halcyon days of their youth– sometimes in conversation with the survivors –each reiteration becomes a little less playful, a little less innocent, and, frankly, a lot more sordid.
What works so well here is Jezabel‘s pushing and pulling against the recognizable tropes of the erotic thriller genre. Each of its sequences are shot with impeccable craft and care. Director and co-writer Hernán Jabes Águila and cinematographer Gerard Uzcategui know exactly how to fashion youthful sex-and-drug play in a style that echoes the glossy sheen of the best erotic thrillers. It’s a difficult task that other films have tried and failed to accomplish. But just as Jezabel draws you in to its world, it forces you to confront and question what you are watching. Are you comfortable in your own gaze as these late-teens’ experimentation turns more decadent, more exploitative?
Eli’s death and the degree to which any of the foursome might have been complicit in it become the focus of Jezabel‘s narrative in its second and third acts. Without saying more that might spoil the film’s surprises, it manages to work in the vein of erotic thrillers from Double Indemnity to Body Heat and Basic Instinct while still managing a clever self-awareness, keenly exploiting what makes the genre work while providing plenty of opportunity to question its own tropes and motives. It’s a genre, after all, where the protagonist is often the killer, the motive often sex.
As Alain, the film’s narrator of sorts, Gabriel Agüero is excellent, scrawny and bespectacled in his youth, stockier and bearded in the present, conflicted by the past but determined to come to terms with it. Eliane Chipia plays Eli with a sly charisma that makes her character often the subject of others’ attraction. Maria Conchita Alonso (Moscow on the Hudson, Colors, Caught—and a former Miss Venezuela) features in a small role as Alain’s mother. As Alain’s lover and co-investigator Salvador, Erich Wildpret makes less of an impression; beyond the sex and the inquiry there’s simply little to his character.
At its conclusion, the film aims for something of an oblique point about the necessity of a free press to stand up to power and corruption, but it seems frankly far less interested in political context or themes beyond its generic origins. Jezabel is more about these four young adults and their fate—and that of the erotic thriller more broadly—than anything else. And in that, it makes for an immensely watchable and thought-provoking twist on a genre long thought dead itself.
Following a successful festival run that included several awards for Agüero and Best Film at Festival del Cine Venezolano, Jezabel premieres in North America on multiple SVOD platforms November 10, 2023.