Goodbye, Bare Breasted Countess

Lars says goodbye to the great Lina Romay. 

Very sad news. Lina Romay is dead. She died last week but her husband and longtime love Jess Franco did not want to share the news for reasons of his own. It finally reached us yesterday.

Romay and Franco made over a hundred films together. They were micro-budget items, mostly sex films. During their peak years they were making upwards of ten movies a year. On many, they were the whole crew. By the late ‘70s they had a reliable method: they would make up the story together, often co-direct, Lina would edit and Jess would work the camera while Lina contorted naked. They shared everything. I’ll always remember their finishing each others’ sentences and cigarettes. They were like one great fused person, expert at every aspect of film-making, jazz music and all the pleasures of life.

The movies they made together are wild, cheap, improvised yet masterful, full of in-jokes about old movies or old jazz musicians. Jess and Lina could always hustle together a small budget to make a sex film, since his ability to film quickly and her voluptuous beauty were part of the package. So they took the money and made many sex films. With the tiny budget Jess and Lina would receive from the likes of Eurocine or Erwin Dietrich, they would make several movies, one for the producer and another one or two for themselves using the sets and equipment paid for by the budget. Their films are subversive, tremendously witty and genuinely sexy. There is nothing else quite like them.

Through our friend David Gregory I invited Jess and Lina to join us as our guests at Fantastic Fest in 2009. I was shocked when they accepted, simply because they hadn’t done anything stateside outside of a horror convention. Jess had received the Goya and the Cinematheque in Paris had just presented a season of his films and we were happy to be able to present him and Lina with a lifetime achievement award.

Spending time with Jess and Lina was the purest joy. I had admired their work for many years and I still believe that future generations will consider Jess a great filmmaker. I knew all the Jess Franco stories, about his great love of jazz and classic Hollywood films, but but I wasn’t quite expecting them to be so very cool. Even though Jess was in a wheelchair with Lina attending to him, they had the energy and enthusiasm of much younger people. I never dreamed that Lina, 24 years Jess’ junior, would be the first to go. They were the most perfectly matched pair I have ever seen.

A few stray memories... I spent many hours with Jess and Lina on the patio of the theater. They liked cigarettes so they spent a lot of time outside, drinking wine and smoking pack after pack. One particular night the fest was abuzz because a screening was taking place inside of footage from James Cameron’s upcoming film Avatar. Nearly everyone crowded into the theater to watch but the young director Nacho Vigalondo chose not to. He stayed outside with Jess and Lina who loved him instantly. Passersby urged him inside but he said that he felt that the cinema was at a crossroads and while he was interested in the technical innovations of Avatar, he felt his proper place was with Jess and Lina because he stood with their methods and values against what Avatar represented. I remember the way Jess smiled with his few teeth and Lina clutched his hand as they all drank wine and told jokes in Spanish.

Dinner with Jess and Lina was an hours-long proposition. As we ate Jess and Lina would pick out bits of barely audible background music and sing along. When a jazz number played, Jess would tap the table vigorously and he and Lina would hash out who the drummer or bass player was on the recording. They would argue good-naturedly about it. I was bowled over by their knowledge. We talked about Orson Welles and drunkenly contemplated a commando raid to recover a Welles negative. Jess became hugely excited at the prospect and Lina laughed softly and rolled her eyes. This must have been a familiar old folly.

At the screening of The Bare Breasted Countess Jess and Lina revealed that it was the film shoot where they fell in love. Lina also told the audience that when she made love with someone else in one of Jess’ films she didn’t mind because in her mind she was with Jess. The audience sighed. She also said “35 years ago Jess took me to the moon and I’m still there." More well-deserved sighs (and tears).

That Bare Breasted Countess show was the most memorable screening I have ever attended. When the film started, Lina ran out of the theater. She hated seeing herself on screen and felt particularly uncomfortable with the sex scenes. Jess stayed in the theater for the first twenty minutes or so, but his cigarettes beckoned him and they spent most of the film waiting on the patio. When the film was almost over I went outside to get them. Lina wheeled Jess into the theater and they stood just inside the door of the theater watching the end of the movie. The whole audience could see them there as they looked up at the naked 19 year old Lina, a stunning vision of loveliness, playing the Countess Karlstein, rolling around in her death/orgasm agonies in a bathtub full of blood while her pursuer, played by Jess himself, looks on, falling in love her. It would be an emotional moment for the audience regardless, as they knew that Jess and Lina were falling in love at the time, but the sight of the two silhouetted in the light from the hallway as their love played out on screen was pure movie magic. It was the most appropriate manifestation of this movie love that was old and new all at once.

I’m sure Jess will be following Lina soon. I can’t believe in an afterlife but if one exists and there’s any justice, they will be there together forever making ten movies a year.