The Giallo Project #9: The Frightened Woman
Alternative titles: Femina ridens; The Laughing Woman; Director: Piero Schivazappa; Starring: Philippe Leroy, Dagmar Lassander; Music: Stelvio Cipriani; Italian theatrical release date: August 24th, 1969
Note: this review contains a number of major spoilers.
“From an aesthetic point of view, your position is perfect. You form a long, supple, curving line against a series of upright lines. You’re feminine like that!” - Dr. Sayer
Well, nearly five months after my last entry, I finally decided to stop prolonging the inevitable and get this project started again. A can only apologise for the extended delay, and hopefully future updates will be a lot more frequent than they have been so far.
Initially, I wasn’t sure whether or not to include this film in the Giallo Project, given that its affiliation with the form can only really be described as loose. However, I think that it does share many elements with the “woman in peril” domestic thrillers that Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi were known for during the early days of the movement, so in a sense it would be wrong to ignore it just because it doesn’t fit the template of the typical giallo. The plot essentially concerns Maria (Dagmar Lassander), a reporter, who accepts an invitation from the enigmatic Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) to visit his apartment on the pretext of giving her some files for a paper she is writing. Maria discovers too late that Sayer is in fact a lunatic who believes that women will take over the world and render men redundant unless something is done to curb their emancipation.
One of the elements that continues to fascinate me with films such as these, and indeed was one of the driving forces in my decision to undertake a PhD on the subject, its their strange air of ambivalence towards violence, modernity and sexuality, to name but a few. After 87 minutes of Dr. Sayer berating women for their desire to be “socially and sexually self-sufficient” and lamenting the possibility of a future in which such a state should come to pass, I’m still not sure where writer/director Piero Schivazappa stands on the issue. The film came along at the height of the women’s liberation movement, and as such it’s tempting to see this as the knee-jerk reaction of a filmmaker who, like many men in the 60s and 70s, was growing increasingly paranoid as a result of women’s burgeoning independence. Obviously, Dr. Sayer is completely insane and unstable, but it wouldn’t be the first time a director used a lunatic to convey his message. The matter is also muddied considerably by a plot twist in the final act which turns the tables, presenting Sayer as the victim of an entrapment scheme cooked up by Maria and another woman. Still, it does conclude with what seems to be a completely sincere call to arms for women not to take any crap from men, so frankly I have no idea!
Whatever Schivazappa intended, the film is clearly an exploration of control. The majority of gialli that feature a female protagonist can be broken down into simple stories of a helpless woman falling into the arms of her handsome rescuer: it’s the ultimate male fantasy of the Good Man saving the damsel in distress from the Bad Man. The difference, here, is that there is no Good Man, only one man and one woman, with the roles of victim and aggressor becoming increasingly blurred as the film progresses. At one point, Maria asks Sayer why he is holding her against her will when he could have all the women he wants. The answer is that he isn’t interested in a woman who is with him by her own choosing: he has to break her will, to give her no choice. This is why Sayer reacts with such horror to Maria’s suicide attempt: his desire for control over her is so strong that he can’t bear the thought of her dying on her terms rather than his. In the shifting power dynamic between the two characters, meanwhile, there seems to be an implication that man wants to enslave woman but is ultimately utterly dependent on her. Sayer is obsessed with his own virility, continually exercising, checking for grey hairs, and so on. Of course, the ageing process is something that can’t be stopped, so perhaps Schivazappa is saying that any attempt to resist the tide of change is ultimately futile. I don’t know, and that’s part of why I find this film so interesting.
Above: Woman’s path curves while man’s is straight and regimented?
Whether all this theorising and analysis interests you is beside the point, because there is plenty of visual aural and eye candy to satisfy even the most ardent theoryphobe (did I just coin a new term there?). It’s beautifully shot - that much is clear even on the horribly faded and blurred copy I watched, where every shade of colour seemed to be a muddy brown - and incredibly late 60s in its styling. The characters seem to live inside a surrealist painting, one populated with art deco architecture and furniture, and even a fascinating vagina dentata contraption, one large enough for a man to step inside and be swallowed by. There is a fascinating contrast between the classical paintings that adorn Sayer’s workplace and the anarchic, tripped-out world of his bachelor pad. Likewise, I’m intrigued by the manner in which Sayer is continually associated with rigid, straight lines while Maria is shown in the context of smooth, flowing curves. Intriguingly, this aesthetic is also used to highlight the shifting balance of power. At the start, while Maria is Sayer’s prisoner, she is frequently framed within or partially blocked by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, whereas later, as the nature of the captor/captive relationship is altered, the framing and architecture become more freeform.
I’m ultimately not entirely sure how I feel about The Frightened Woman. It’s a visually arresting and often thematically interesting piece of work, but it does strike a few bum notes, among them Maria’s readiness to forgive Sayer for locking her up and abusing her mentally and physically when she discovers that this is the first time he has ever done this to a woman (although even this is muddied by the late revelation that she was actually the one who set out to ensnare him). Likewise, after the reconciliation between the two characters, there is a lengthy stretch in which the film more or less collapses until the final climactic twist is unveiled. Still, it’s an interesting, unique piece of work, and Lassander and Leroy do well to carry it across the finishing line between them. This is probably one for repeat viewings, and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it before.
Next time, I’ll be looking at another fringe case, Elio Petri’s Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.