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Forgotten Gialli: Battle of the Sexies

The sexual cold war just heated up.

The final part in our series on Forgotten Gialli

My problem with the misogyny that runs through the giallo genre is not so much that it's there, but that it's so often unexamined. At least Sam Peckinpah's films seem to tell me something about the demons of insecurity, paranoia and loathing infesting his mind. I'm frustrated, for instance, that Dario Argento has portrayed the graphic mutilation-murder of women in his films so frequently (his own leather-gloved hands doubling for those of the killer), without ever seeming to take much interest in why this subject seems to obsess him. "I love women," he has said, "therefore I would rather show a beautiful woman being killed than an ugly man." Is it just me, or does that statement open up questions, and even paradoxes? For a former critic, Argento seems disinclined to analyze things.

Not only do the films not actively interrogate their own violence, they sidestep doing so even when it might seem beneficial. Psychological motivation in such films is frequently ludicrous, almost as a point of honor, and the more extreme acts of misogyny usually end up attributed to female culprits. Now, even forensic psychologists, who supposedly read crime scenes like critics poring over a text, are unsure what it actually means when a killer leaves a weapon or other implement embedded in the victim's vagina, but they agree on two points: (1) It's not good and (2) The killer is likely to be male. But in both Aldo Lado's The Night Train Murders (1975, one of several exploitation remakes of Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and Massimo Dallamano's superior What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), the culprit is rather counter-intuitively chosen from the fairer sex. This seems like frantic finger-pointing by the guilty gender. At least Lucio Fulci has a male killer in The New York Ripper (1982), and plays the killer himself, as himself, in A Cat in the Brain (1990), both of which seem rather like attempts to destroy by overkill the genre he was most associated with.

So it's, well, not exactly heartwarming, but at least encouraging, to find a semi-giallo that actually tackles specifically male sexual psychosis in a way that's practically nuanced, and at least honest. Piero Schivazappa's Femina ridens (1969, properly translated as The Laughing Woman, sometimes as The Frightened Woman) is also a delirious pop-art spectacle, playing sort of like a remake of Wyler's The Collector (1965) only with a lot more laughs.

When S&M freak millionaire Christian Grey Philippe Leroy's usual call-girl stands him up, he spontaneously abducts journalist Dagmar Lassander (a living link between the German krimi genre and the mostly-later giallo) as a plaything. What makes the ensuing hour of torture-games interesting as something other than nasty softcore fetish-porn is not so much an investment in character (there's none) as a sharp awareness that the abusive male is not some powerful lurking-behind-the-camera supernatural force, but a weak, inadequate and messed-up individual frantically trying to (over)compensate for intense feelings of anxiety and persecution.

In a scenario like this, the victim is not the most interesting character (though one wishes the script could have given Lassander a little more substance), since suffering is a leveler: we're all the same in pain. The twisted dickwad wielding the hose or camera is worth exploring, if you get past his ubermensch pose. Leroy, a chiseled creepy type with a bad dye-job, is suitably loathsome, but when he produces a life-size rubber replica of himself (designed by the late Carlo Rambaldi of ET fame) and demands that Lassander make love to it, he crosses over into some new realm of perverted lunacy that was actually new to me. He's an even better portrait of the disintegrating fascist macho than Fellini's Professor Xavier Zubercock from City of Women.

Look, I don't really care if this is a giallo at all: it is a mod psycho-thriller (as gorgeous as Clouzot's La prisonnière and Bava's Diabolik), and the direction the plot takes owes some kind of debt to Les diaboliques, a key text in the development of the genre, I'd say. Director Schivazappa shows a keen eye and a great sense of visual rhythm, aided by Stelvio Cipriani's hip score: together they turn the final sex confrontation into a Leone gunfight, complete with big eye close-ups, blaring trumpets and twanging electric guitar.

A visual feast that may leave you feeling slightly sick, Femina Ridens takes with one sweaty hand what it gives with the other, so that the ending may make you feel it's endorsing Leroy's vision of women as man-eating scorpions. But even that may be OK, since by the end we're on the side of the scorpions.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Leroy played the husband in Godard’s Une Femme Mariee
Continue to really enjoy this series; it’s become required reading for me each week. And you’re right: anyone interested in analyzing (or enjoying) Italian genre cinema has to grapple with the varying degrees of misogyny seeming to get a pass up there on the screen. I think, though, that Argento’s films do (sometimes at least) engage in a serious critique of this very topic. (His ridiculous and offensive quotes are another matter; I can’t really speak to them as I, uh, you know, don’t know the man. I’ve heard more than one critic argue that his infamous “beautiful women” comment was meant to be ironic and provocative, a way to goad his critics at the time. That seems like a cop-out to me personally, but in the end, I’m less interested in his interviews and more interested in his films.) One easy example of his critique of sexuality and violence would be the casting of transgendered Eva Robins as “the girl on the beach” in Tenebrae. It turns his “beautiful women being murdered” comment on its head—because what happens when the beautiful woman being murdered is not a woman at all? What does that mean in relation to violence against women when a character coded as a woman (especially sexually coded) isn’t one? Further, the fact that Robins’ first appearance in the film is a visual quotation of a sexually manipulated Elizabeth Taylor from Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer adds, I think, that many more layers of possible meaning and interpretation. The fact that Argento’s violence here points directly back to a whole history of film violence (in this case, the misogyny in 1950s Hollywood), I think bears some examination. And at least suggests that Argento is doing more than just ogling attractive actresses when he shoots these scenes. (Also, the fact that Tilde’s murder in the same film is itself a visual quotation of the first murder from Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase again suggests that there’s more going on in Argento’s films [his better films at least] than meets the eye.)
Also, if you’re interested in seeing a sort of variation on The Frightened Woman’s themes, you should certainly check out Yasuzo Masumura’s Rampo adaptation Blind Beast, also from 1969. Not only does a room-sized sculpture of a woman’s body figure prominently in both films, the various S&M power games between the two characters in Woman reminded me more than once of similar scenes in Beast.
Blind Beast is pretty startling stuff, yes, and the sculpture does indeed create a striking parallel. Argento quote The Spiral Staircase in Deep Red also, but I never know whether his quotations are a blend of straight theft and a touching of stylistic benchmarks, or whether he does intend to reference the underlying themes of the works he quotes. I’ve tended towards the former view. The casting in Tenebrae, however, must mean SOMETHING… even if it’s only the desire to freak out certain straight male viewers, that at least displays a different way of tweaking audience sensibilities.
Love this series. A section of my thesis was devoted to the female murderer in Argento films. Argento seems to dance around some gender issues. Ok, so there’s a lot of blatant stuff going on, but sometimes I see glimpses of Argento asking the audience to rethink a stereotype (Deep Red has the scene with Gianna and Marc arguing if women are "weaker and gentler " and the scene becomes rather silly very quickly -perhaps Argento’s way of suggesting the need to still have these conversations is silly -—or maybe I’m being too nice) . Of course, my main argument was that his female killers were often stripped of power and ultimately portrayed as victims.
Speaking of Deep Red, don’t forget Geraldine Hooper as Massimo Ricci. (You called her a “pallid androgyne” in your discussion of They Have Changed Their Face a few weeks ago, David.)
In Daria Nicolodi, Deep Red has the best female character in all Argento’s work. And she gets stabbed in the spleen, but at least she survives. She seems to be his take on the fast-talking female reporter of Hollywood movies — I wish his genre borrowing took him that direction more often.
Gotta love Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena.
Well, she seems like a nice girl. The most fascinating female presence has to be Jessica Harper in Suspiria. Electric! And she sort-of grounds what may be Argento’s most spacey film. The lack of someone like her really hurts Inferno for me.
Best female ensemble in a Dario has to be Suspiria – in addition to Jessica, we get Stefania Casini, Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, all topped off with a little Udo and Miguel! As for Inferno – who goes to lectures looking like this anyway?

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