Written and directed by Renzo Russo, this is one of the stranger gialli out there – if, that is, it can actually be called a giallo. It certainly features a number of characteristic giallo tropes: an alienated, artistic protagonist; a femme fatale figure or three; conspiracy and mystery and, above all, lots of mannequin action and imagery.
It's the last aspect which also, however, offsets the others to some extent, insofar as we're never too sure what's actually going on and what to make of the femme fatale, the conspiracy and the mystery which seem, instead, to have just as much in common with an E T A Hoffmann fantastique.
At one point a Mr Gonzales goes to the police station to report a missing person. Asked to name her, he hesitates, tellingly opening with the remark that “to me she was my doll, my sensuous doll,” while the direction focuses on his hands to the exclusion of his face. As he confesses to breaking into a house in search of the missing woman we get what would otherwise be a classic giallo subjective camera stalking scene, except for the fact that we know the identity – yet still not the face – of the stalker.
Living, bleeding doll?
It's possible that the version of the film I saw, with the title of Sweet Spirits, had been re-edited so that this scene appeared out of sequence. Nevertheless such changes would appear to have only added to a weirdness that was already there, with a blending of past and present, dream and reality throughout that demand an active involvement in making sense of the film.
What is clear is that Farley Granger plays an unsuccessful, alcoholic artist by the name of John Ward. The dealers don't want his paintings and he refuse to change his style or subject to meet the tastes of the market.
One day while out walking in the woods he happens upon a group of hippies, one of whom gives him a mannequin. “She's better than the real thing – she's always there and she'll never talk back to you,” he explains. Ward takes the mannequin home and repairs its damaged face: “I'll fix you up. You'll see.”
A composition that would likely look even more impressive in the proper aspect ratio
Later, in a bar, he meets a hooker who, on learning that he is an artist, suggests that she could model for him.
Back home, this seems to cause him to imagine that the mannequin has come to life, though at this point she remains silent and passive.
After some drinks, Ward falls asleep with his model/mannequin/muse. On awakening she has changed into another woman (Erika Blanc) and now talks to him.
After again being told that what the market wants is naked women, the model/mannequin/muse suggests that she might pose for John.
Pictures of Lily, er Erica
Reluctantly he agrees – they do need the money. The resulting painting sells and the dealers want more. So does the model: “Don't forget the chocolate, and the stockings – and bring me a few magazines.” More than this, however, she also takes another lover, in the form of a local huntsman, the aforementioned Gonzales (Venantino Venantini), and attracts the attentions of one of the dealers, Omar Bey.
Erica in seductive mode
It can all only end badly – if, that is, we can even say that there is such a thing as an ending in a film like this.
For taken as a whole it's a bit like that famous mobius strip sequence in Bava's Kill Baby Kill where, walking through the castle in pursuit of the child, Paul Eswai ends up also chasing after himself; perhaps not coincidentally a similar image appeared in The Archers' Tales of Hoffman, in the Antonia story segment, with that film's Olympia segment featuring a similar red-headed mannequin come to life who also meets a similarly disturbing end.
The Granger/Blanc relationship intriguingly recalls that between John and Mildred Harrington in A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, another Bava film which pushed the boundaries of giallo representation, while Blanc's dualistic character has affinities with her role as the succubus temptress in The Devil's Nightmare – indeed at one point she even wears a similar “threw it on and nearly missed” navel-revealing dress.
Gradually, that is, it all starts to make sense...
If, however, working at this isn't your thing there are the incidentals: the pleasing easy listening score; Granger's method-esque performance (the only person I can imagine playing the role better would be Frank Wolff); some nice little directorial touches, like ending a scene and coveng Granger's character's mood by having Granger him walk into the camera; and, of course, all that eye-candy.