Friday, February 23, 2018

Femina Ridens, aka The Laughing Woman (Italy, 1969)

Ok, ladies, a question for you: Who among you would not feel that a lifetime of male domination and constant humiliation would be a fair trade for being the kept woman of a wealthy, narcissistic pervert? Hmm, let’s see… all of you? Alright, then.

Granted, that’s not a very appropriate question to ask at this particular cultural moment. But I had to ask, because that type of man-up/woman-down relationship is a constant fixation of Western popular culture, even as the audience for it shifts. After all, the Fifty Shades of Gray novels and their screen adaptations are squarely aimed at the women folk, essentially being modern day bodice-rippers offering Harlequin Romance with a Desadean twist (with a nice dose of wealth porn thrown in for good measure.) But such stories have traditionally been engineered with an eye toward male titilation—from John Fowles’ The Collector¸ the many iterations of The Story of O, and, in the mainstream, 9 1/2 Weeks, and even Pretty Woman. Each of these works posits the existence of an actual human woman who finds having her sexuality bought and paid for by a man of means somehow liberating. The appeal of this idea to the masculine ego is not too mysterious, but to women? Could it be that this world is such a dangerous place for women that some of them would pay any price—forfeiting their dignity, even their humanity--to be protected from it by a buffer of wealth and privilege? I’m looking at you, Melania.

This fantasy is so powerful that even a film like Femina Ridens, which seems to pride itself on subverting that power, cannot do so without delivering a lot of fan service to the raincoat crowd. Granted, as sexploitation films from the late 60s and 70s go, Femina Ridens (aka The Laughing Woman, but released by Radley Metzger in an English dub under the telling moniker The Frightened Woman) is pretty tame. Which is to say that, if it were Japanese, there would be enemas in it. And maybe eels.

As it is, the film sticks with a pretty literal expression of sado-masochism, which seems to be the default fetish of Western fiction. It seems hard for popular cinema to imagine any type of off-kilter sexual proclivity that does not involve someone hurting someone else or being hurt by them. Apparently, though the range of human fetishes is limitless, those fetishes’ appeal to straight society is limited to those that serve us up with a heady cocktail of sex and violence. In other words, no one is going to pay to see a movie in which a beautiful woman is absconded with by a mysterious count with a diaper fixation. But, of course, that’s just a choice, not the result of sexual violence being any kind of broad cultural fetish, or anything like that.

Femina Ridens stars A Hatchet For the Honeymoon’s Dagmar Lassander as Mary, a pretty young journalist who, after succumbing to a drugged highball, finds herself decorously imprisoned within the pushbotton-everything, mid-century modern dreamhouse of Sayer, a wealthy philanthropist played by The Night Porter’s Phillipe Leroy. Here she is subjected to constant ritual humiliation, as well as Sayer’s constant voyeuristic gaze. Sayer, it turns out has a lot of interesting (read: paranoid) ideas about female liberation, seeing the movement's first tentative steps as the prelude to a full on insurrection that will see the removal of men from the birthing process and their eventual extermination. Thus Mary, an educated and assertive young career woman, becomes his stand-in for the feminine gender as a whole, setting the stage for the archetypal battle to come.

Some of Sayer’s methods are boilerplate movie psycho stuff—chopping off Mary’s hair, whipping her, soaking her with a firehose, etc.—but others are more peculiar. At one point he tapes her mouth shut and forces her to watch as he slathers half a baguette with marmalade and eats it. At another, he shows her a hogtied female figure in constricting bondage gear that’s suspended from the ceiling, only to reveal that it is only a mannequin. He also forces Mary to make love to a mannequin version of himself and, later, makes her play a chamber organ as he fondles her body invasively. But by far his creepiest contrivance is a double bed divided in half by a moving panel, which he sometimes draws back to reveal to Mary that he has been lying beside her during a moment of presumed privacy, to drive home that he is always watching.

Throughout all of this, Phillipe Leroy, while indulging in all the evil chuckling and delivering of maniacal proclamations we all expect, takes pains to show us Sayer’s pathetic insecurity and preening self-absorption. It becomes obvious that his fantasies of coming female domination are  expressions of his anxiety over his own waining physical prowess, as exemplified by a scene in which he forces Mary to watch him do naked pull-ups from a bar suspended over his bathtub. It’s easy to imagine that his fetishes are the only way that this sad beast can get off, as there is nothing about him that doesn’t scream impotence (in an early scene, he angrily castigates Mary for her views on male sterilization as a means of birth control.) At times, Mary seems to be aware of this fact, and tries to sell Sayer on the idea of romantic love and mutually pleasurable sex. When this fails, she tries to exert the natural power that she, by virtue of her sexuality, holds over him, at one point preforming a topless go-go dance in her quarters, all the while aware that he is watching inertly from the other side of a two-way mirror.

And then, after Sayer revives Mary following a suicide attempt, love blossoms between the two—with results as chilling as anything we’ve seen so far. I’m talking about scenes of the couple frolicking in the fields and cuddling in the shower as whimsical music plays. This inexcusable audience torture ends with a scenic trip by amphicar to a seaside castle where Mary laughingly cajoles Sayer into overindulging on fried oysters. But amid all this lovey-dovey frivolity, one has to ask oneself—or Femina Ridens director Piero Schivazappa, if he happens to be in the room—whether Mary’s affections are real, or if she is just playing on Sayer’s feelings to her advantage. You might, in fact, ask yourself ..


Another inopportune thing about the current cultural moment is that it prevents me from discussing a silly movie like Femna Ridens with the flippancy it deserves. Because, despite whatever subversive--or even feminist--intentions its makers might have had, it is indeed very silly—and it is silly because it undermines those very intentions in two ways that are directly tied to how much it conforms to the practices of the typical European sexploitation film of its day. For one thing, while it’s fun to look at Francesco Cuppini's ultra-mod production design  and groove to Stilvio Cipriani’s slick, pop-inflected (and excellent) score, both of those elements are aggressively employed to embue Sayer’s money-driven world of decadent excess with a seductive glamour, and, while Mary’s turning the tables is a foregone conclusion, it appears to be a conclusion that the film's male creators have some ambivalence about.

It also has to be said that the filmmakers do themselves no favors with a couple of instances of  laughably on-the-nose symbolism--which, to be honest, is what a lot of us watch these old Italian exploitation films for. The first occurs during the pair's romantic idyll, when Sayer pulls his car over beside some railroad tracks to receive some road head from Mary. As she goes to town on him below the camera's view, an engine passes by towing a flatbed car bearing an all female band. A close-up shows us the clarinetist salaciously mouthing her instrument. Get it? It's exactly the kind of seedy, winking coyness that makes hardcore porn seem wholesome by comparison.

Another of the film's blunt force metaphors is the statue of a giant pair of spread female legs with a vagina dentata at its nexus. At the film's opening, a group of business men are seen filing listlessly into its maw and then,  at a pivotal moment, Sayer himself is seen stepping inside, only to emerge as a skeleton. This less than subtly signifies the moment at which Mary goes from being the victim to the femme fatale.

On the other hand, thanks to some goofy musical cues (babbadabbadip-doowah!) and sound effects, plus a few instances of romantic slapstick, the film at times adopts a tone that is downright breezy. This is typical of the European ‘sex romps” of the day, which positioned themselves as clarions of the Sexual Revolution, spreading the word that sex was no longer something to be taken seriously, that it was instead something fun… even zany! And sadly, Femina Ridens was not the only of these films to portray as fun and zany sex that was practiced upon those without agency or choice, or used, in tandem with wealth, to callously exploit them. (I can’t help recalling the running gag in When Women Lost Their Tales concerning how Senta Berger is routinely gang raped—zanily!--by her caveman companions.)

Now I’m not saying it’s not possible to surrender to Femina Ridens’ charms and simply enjoy it as a stylish piece of European pop cinema, which it is. I’m just saying that, to do that, and then turn around and write about it as if it's not problematic on a number of levels, would be an act of bad faith I’m not ready to commit, no matter how sprightly the soundtrack. And so I gaze forlornly through the window at the kids on the other side of the pane, the ones without scruples, who happily cavort in the sprinkler while jazzy Italian pop music plays, shouting out bad words like “boobs” and “tushie” with gleeful abandon. Sigh.


Anonymous said...

You may be a hoardist mookster, but with the opening paragraphs you may just have restored your reputation in my eyes. Cheers!

Todd said...