Monday, 16 June 2008

Femina Ridens

Co-written and directed by Piero Schivazappa, this film goes by a number of different titles, each placing its own distinctive slant on the proceedings – The Laughing Woman, The Frightened Woman and Games of Love, Games of Death.

Philippe Leroy plays Dr Sayer, a misogynist obsessed with male virility and the threat of a female-dominated future. He's also a sadist who enjoys regular weekend sessions with a high class hooker. When she cancels at the last minute, Sayer decides to take advantage of feminist journalist Maria, played by Dagmar Lassander, inviting her to come over to his apartment later to collect some papers she needs to be able to write up her article over the weekend. There, Sayer slips Maria a drugged J&B and takes her to his country home, with the intention of re-educating her as to the 'proper' places of men and women...

Images haunting sayer's dreams / nightmares

There's not much more than can be said without spoiling things for the first time viewer, except that, like Deep Red or Kidnapped / Rabid Dogs, it's worth paying close attention to the opening sequence. And, in common with these other masterworks of Italian popular cinema, The Laughing Woman is also sufficiently rich in its images and ideas to reward repeat viewings once the surprise is over.

A shot that would not be out of place in The Conformist

The duplicitious woman, framed in the mirrors

The buttoned-up, straight-laced Maria

Some of Sayer's abstract paintings, based on viruses under the microscope

As the synopsis indicates, we're very much in battle of the sexes territory, with all the usual structural oppositions in place: male / female, master / slave, active / passive, bearer of the gaze / object of the gaze, sadist / masochist, victimiser / victim etc. Yet The Laughing Woman also goes a considerable way towards challenging these binaries, treating them in a distinctly ironic manner and encouraging the viewer to take another look.

Sayer and Marie in a cage

Sayer and the usual phallic cutlery

Sayer's ideal man, himself

The voiceless woman

Again, it's difficult to say much without spoiling things. Despite all his attempts to master and discipline his own flesh and that of Maria and her predecessors, Sayer's position is ultimately one of fear and weakness. He has a revulsion for intimacy with the female, believing that she will kill him once she has mated in a manner akin to a scorpion he saw in his boyhood, while his dreams are dominated by the image of a giant vagina dentata, an abyss into which men enter never to return.

Obvious sexual symbolism

Sayer photographs his trophy

But to play the great white hunter, he must place himself in the frame and the camera's eye, surrendering a degree of power

Maria usurping the gaze

The thing that really sets the film apart is how beautifully stylised it all is. Moreover, it is not just about style for its own sake. Rather, form and content are intertwined, body and mind becoming a single flesh. It's not just the way in which the gigantic sculpture of vagina dentata and curvaceous, contoured abstract female form around it so brilliantly incarnates Sayer's fears, but also the suggestiveness of the relentlessly rigid and linear compositions around him, with their parallel connotations of a need for control, order, domination and systematisation.

Though there are a few more characters at the start and end, the bulk of the film is essentially a two hander between Leroy and Lassander. As such, it's crucial for the success of the piece that both deliver strong performances, with Leroy especially successful in conveying his character's preening narcissism and Lassander winning the viewer as well as Sayer over.

Lassander has long been something of an enigma to me. To put it crudely and admittedly cruelly, what happened to her between this film, So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious, where she plays the new stepmother and rival to Gloria Guida's teenage temptress, and The House by the Cemetery, where her Mrs Gittelson is very much middle aged and non-sexual, with only that fiery hair as a reminder of past glories. Was it simply time and nature taking a harsher toll than on any of the other starlets of similar age, or of Lassander's enjoying that bit too much of la dolce vita in the intervening years?

Whatever the case, she's in her absolute prime here, with her own particular dance of the one long veil to Stelvio Cipriani's “sophisticated shake” with its breathy female vocals surely counting as one of the most wonderfully erotic and sensuous moments to come out of the entire Italian cinema of this time. Its also a crucial moment of spectacle within the film gestalt, again foregrounding a somewhat more complex dynamics of looking and being looked at inasmuch as Maria is here putting on a performance that shifts the balance of power between her and Sayer for the first time.

Lassander's dance; note the teeth motif on the wall and the obligatory J&B bottle

Another stunning composition

Both characters again in a cage

It's telling in this regard that the film was picked up for international distribution by Radley Metzger's Audubon Films, given the still subversive nature of Metzger's own erotic and pornographic films of the same period such as Score, The Lickerish Quartet and The Punishment of Anne, with their aims of stimulating the viewer both physically and mentally; in Metzger's masterpiece The Opening of Misty Beethoven, for example, passengers boarding a routine jet flight are asked which meal option they would like and whether or not they want oral sex administered in a manner reminiscent of a scene in Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty in which eating is done in private and is a taboo subject, whereas everyone gathers around the table to do the toilet. The point, there as here, is reminding us that the 'natural' and 'normal' are at least partly conventional.

If it would be going too far to say that The Laughing Woman is a Nieztschean film, despite the philosopher's notorious and revelant proclamation that “when you go to a woman, you should take a whip with you,” it does have that quality of making you think about such things. (Intriguingly, however, Bertrand Russell also opined that “Nine out of ten women would get the whip away from him [Nietzsche], and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks,” with this being a remark well worth thinking about on a repeat viewing.)

The Laughing Woman also features a stunning score from Stelvio Cipriani, which has itself recently been re-issued on CD by Digitmovies. Besides the aforementioned Sophisticated Shake, other standout tracks include a spaghetti western style deguello theme, which plays over the final showdown between Maria and Sayer, replete with alernating close-ups of their eyes, and the closing “A Man like You,” sung by Olimpia in her deliciously accented phonetically pronounced English.

The weakest aspect of the film is perhaps its dialogue, with some awkwardly arch lines that today's audience may find dated and hard to take seriously. Even here, however, it's evident that the filmmakers took considerable care over what they were doing, with some subtle little hints here and there of what is to come. The self-consciously 'meaningful' nature of many of the exchanges also helps in the creation of an enclosed world with its own particular rules and logics, in keeping with the production design, direction and overarching themes of the piece.

Take, for example, one of the initial exchanges between Maria and Sayer, after he has learned that she prefers to work at weekends: “You have a very odd way of spending your weekends.” “I seem to work better on those two days. I like to shut myself off from people and not be distracted.” The point is that Sayer's own weekend activities are not particularly normal, while in abducting Maria and subjecting her to various bondage scenarios, he is himself helping shut her off from (other) people and anything that might distract (or detract) from her experiencing her full quotients of suffering and he of pleasure.

In sum, a stunning one-off that still holds up well nearly 40 years after its original release while also providing a fascinating time capsule of the beginnings of second wave feminism and its social and cultural reverberations.


herman said...


Great write up, and I see why you shied away from going further with your comments at time- there are so many surprises and delights in store for the first time viewer, be a pity to spoil it.

Along with a few other titles shameless picked up, this does seem to have serious replay value (I have almost worn out my Venus In Furs),

When reviewing this I picked up in particular on the fascist/anti fascists undertones- which you also seem to hae homed in on Nietzsche though like you I wonder whether to call the film Nitchean
would be a step to far, to so we would have to clearly identify the filmmakers motivations thus.

but having said that, when the stylistic differences and gender issues etc are stripped out I found a film that in a strange kind of way reminded me of Kangaroo-

K H Brown said...

Interesting, given that Lawrence was attacked by some feminist critics for a sadistic streak in his work.

I'd like to see The Collector, Woman of the Dunes and The Prisoner (Clouzot) to see if there's any influences on the film there, as this 1960s abduction / relationship / Stockholm Syndrome grouping.

herman said...

I wasnt familiar with such a criticism of Lawrence but one particular theme I picked up on in kangeroo was the dictators demand to be loved, not simply obeyed- that the individual surrenders their will entirely, without condition or coercion- something that sayer clearly set out to achieve, not necessarily love but the surrender of the will.

It as been a long time since I read 1984, but I remember a scene in the film where Richard Burton is torturing John Hurt while questioning hurt- demanding hurt to answer how many fingures were being held up, it was not enough for Burton that Hurt as smith spoke the correct answer, he had to believe it too,

this seemed to me the demand of sayer- he wanted her complete surrender.

For me this is where the fascism angle comes into play- the desire of the dictator is not to be feared but to be loved, a theme I believe was explicitly expressed in Kangaroo.

In Femina ridens this it seems is what is exploited by Maria has she encourages sayer to pursue this course to its logical conclusion.

*** small spoiler alert ***

I don't know if it was the intent of the filmmaker but I began to feel sorry for sayer as he challenged his own assumtions and was well on his way to becoming a reformed character- even if was a reformed character with a dubious past. It seems that by the final segment he had completely changed his outlook.

On the other hand this it could be argued was that Maria was better at playing his game than he was.

A study in stokholm syndrome? I think to be fair yes, that was pretty much what we got with Femina Ridens.

all the best,


pete said...

Lassander is wonderful here and her dance is truly a classic movie moment if there ever was one. I never got the supposed consensus that by the time of Cemetary she looked all haggard, older yes, but certainly not the time ravaged woman many have suggested. A terrific film nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my english. I'am from Italy. I'am looking for the lyrics of the song Femina Ridens that starts with: " a man like you is non for me..."
please send me the words