Shameless is rapidly becoming the DVD label to watch. With Piero Schivazappa’s 1969 giallo The Frightened Woman (Femina ridens) they’ve come up with yet another unjustly forgotten masterpiece of Italian cult cinema.
This is one of those movies where you really have to be careful about jumping to conclusions until you’ve seen the whole movie.
Dagmar Lassander plays Maria, a young and ambitious female reporter about to do a story on the subject of male sterilisation. Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) lectures her about how vitally important it is to do nothing that would interfere in any way with male fertility, although clearly he’s much more concerned with male virility than with fertility. So obsessed is he that we immediately suspect he’s either gay, impotent or has some very disturbing sexual issues.
Dr Sayer lures Maria to his palatial ultra-modern pop art home. It turns out that the hooker who was going to be his playmate for the weekend hasn’t shown up. He decides that Maria will provide his entertainment instead.
He kidnaps her, and enslaves her. He subjects to her to various humiliations, and informs her that he gets his kicks by killing women at the exact moment he reaches orgasm. He tells her that he has murdered many women in this way, and shows her the photos to prove it. The good doctor likes to photograph himself in the act of dominating women. He assures Maria that this is the fate in store for her, but that he is going to draw out the fun for as long as possible.
Now I know what you’re thinking at this point. You’re thinking that even by giallo standards this is going to be a nasty, misogynistic and thoroughly unpleasant slice of cinema. You’re thinking that because writer-director Piero Schivazappa wants you to think that, because you’ve fallen into his trap and you’ve taken everything you’ve seen so far at face value. The true situation is very very different indeed.
Not only are you about to encounter a stunningly dramatic plot twist, you’re also going to see the entire tone of the movie change. You’re going to be left wondering if you even know what kind of movie it is you’re watching. Is it really a giallo at all? Is it a black comedy? A satire? A sex comedy? A twisted love story? Or is it in fact a giallo after all, but a giallo hiding its true nature?
Now you can relax. It’s all become clear, and you know what the real situation is. Or do you? Or does Signor Schivazappa have more tricks up his sleeve? Has he led us down the garden path once again?
There is certainly a dangerous sexual game being played, but it’s not the game that Dr Sayer thought he was playing, or that Maria thought she was playing. It’s certainly not the game the audience assumed they were watching. And it’s not the only game being played - Schivazappa is playing an equally perverse game with the viewer.
Stylistically it’s certainly a giallo. Or once again, perhaps that’s just the impression we’re supposed to form. As it progresses there are moments that would be more at home in a Ken Russell movie, or even a Fellini movie (including a couple of priceless and very amusing sexual sight gags). There’s some of the psychedelic ambience of late 60s Jess Franco, of movies like Venus in Furs and Succubus. And it has quite a bit in common with Massimo Dallamano’s movies of the same period, such as his version of Venus in Furs and The Secret of Dorian Gray.
Radley Metzger picked it up for US distribution by his Audobon Films, and it fits quite well with the kind of stylish erotica he specialised in. It is very erotic, but it’s the erotica of ideas rather than the erotica of explicit sex. There’s virtually no actual nudity or sex. This is all mind-sex.
For 90 percent of the film’s running time there are only two people on screen, Philippe Leroy and Dagmar Lassander. So an enormous amount depends on how well they play their roles. And both give outstanding performances.
Piero Schivazappa has worked mostly in TV as a writer and director and has only made a handful of feature films. Perhaps films like The Frightened Woman were just too unconventional to be commercially successful. Whatever the explanation, The Frightened Woman is one of the greatest Italian cult movies of its era.
Incidentally, I’m told that the Region 1 DVD from First Run Features is to avoided at all costs. The Region 0 release from Shameless in the UK is superb and is clearly the one to go for.